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What’s in a name?

by Jamie Atwell, garden volunteer

Reading through various plant and seed catalogues during the Christmas break, I began to wonder about the names given to plants. Why are the botanical names in Latin or Greek, or sometimes, a combination of the two? Why are they always written in italics? Above all, what do they mean? This train of thought set me off on a minor bit of research which turned out to be very absorbing. I thought I would describe some of the results.

One of the most famous lines in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ occurs in Act II when Juliet says “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Although Juliet is suggesting that names themselves do not hold any special meaning (for she would love Romeo even if he were not a Montague), this is definitely not the case in botany. The names of many plants have rich and varied meaning attached to them.

The Royal Horticultural Society’s Nomenclature and Taxonomy Advisory Group oversees the proper naming of plants in the UK, as well as the International Commission for the Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants. In botany, plants are given a binomial name – that is two principal parts, the first being the genus and the second the species e.g. Digitalis purpurea (the common foxglove). The way it was explained to me was to regard the genus as being akin to a surname and the species as a forename – so, in botanical terms, I would be Atwell jamie (should anyone wish to name a plant after me!).

With all that in mind, I have listed some examples that caught my eye. These plants have not been chosen at random. They are all plants that have already been, or soon will be, planted in the new Bishop Compton beds to the South and East of the Walled Garden. Ilex aquifolium will in fact be represented by the splendidly named Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox’ (Hedgehog Holly)

Lonicera caprifolium (Perfoliate Honeysuckle)

The genus name Lonicera is the Latinised name of the German botanist Adam Lonitzer in whose honour the genus was named. The species name of caprifolia derives from the Latin for goat (caper – billygoat / capra – nannygoat) and folia being the Latin for leaves. In English therefore, caprifolia means “goatleaves”. I’m told that it ended up with this name because goats like eating this plant’s leaves.

Ilex aquifolium (common holly)

Here, the species name derives from aquila, the Latin name for eagle. The beak-like spines on the leaves are said to resemble that of an eagle.

Crataegus crus-galli (Cockspur Thorn)

In this instance, crus-galli is simply the Latin for cock’s leg, particularly the growth on the back of the leg known in English as cockspur.

Leonotis leonurus (Lion’s Tail)

As we are now deeply involved in an analysis of plants, here is my favourite. The genus name is the Greek for lion’s ear and the species name leonurus (from the Greek leon for lion and oura for tail) means lion’s tail. So a full translation of this plant’s name would be, confusingly, “Lion’s Ear Lion’s Tail”. It is known to some gardeners, however, as motherwort.

One final irresistible example (though not forming part of the Bishop Compton beds) is the Venus Flytrap – Dionaea muscipula. The Latin for mousetrap is, you guessed it, muscipula.