What’s in a (Latin) name?

Photos: Magnolia blossoms CC0 via pixabay.com; bust of Pierre Magnol CC BY-SA 3.0 by Albertvillanovadelmoral via wikimedia.org

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I write for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license . If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

Our Garden has hundreds of plant species – many planted, and many more growing wild. That’s just the tip of the botanical iceberg, though – there are about 400,000 plant species on Earth. Keeping track of these is a big challenge, and of course the first step is to give them all names.

Like all organisms, plants have two sets of names – “common” names and “scientific” (or “Latin”) names. Common names (sunflower, speedwell, daylily) are easy to use and often intuitive, but they’re imprecise: it’s routine for a plant species to carry several common names, and for a single name to be applied to several or even many species. Scientific names (Helianthus annuus, Veronica spicata, Hemerocallis fulva) exist to avoid that imprecision: each species has just one scientific name, and each name applies to just one species. That’s why you’ll hear botanists bandying these names about, and you’ll see them on our signage, in gardening books, and in the scientific literature.

But non-scientists are often baffled by scientific names. They’re unfamiliar, long, and often difficult to pronounce and spell (after 20 years working with the moth Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis, I still stumble over its name). But don’t let that stop you from engaging with them, because a little investment in understanding a scientific name often returns a pleasant surprise. Once you dig into the etymology, you’ll find scientific names can be fascinating and sometimes lyrical, and can alert you to things about our plants you might not have noticed or known.

Scientific names are usually Greek or Latin in origin (and normally have spelling and grammar Latinized, which is why we call them “Latin” names even if their original roots are Greek or Sanskrit or Aleut). When a new species is formally described in the scientific literature, its discoverer coins a name and describes the reasoning behind it. Most scientific names refer to one of three things: a characteristic of the species being named, a place in which it lives, or a person the discoverer wishes to honour.

We have examples of all three in our Garden. For plant characteristics, think of our daylilies: the genus Hemerocallis comes from Greek hemera (day) + kallis (beauty). Rhododendon means “rose tree”, and our coneflowers’ genus name Echinacea refers to their flowers’ spiny central disks (from echinus for sea urchin). For places, we have the lovely but underappreciated “weed” daisy fleabane: Erigeron philadelphicus. But my favourite name in the Garden might belong to our magnolias.

450px-Bust_de_Pierre_Magnol_al_Jard+¡_Bot+ánic_de_Montpeller_-_02The genus Magnolia is named for the 17th-century French botanist Pierre Magnol. He was medically trained, but in his soul a botanist, and he struggled against religious oppression (as a Protestant in Catholic France) to pursue a botanical career. Magnol was the first to organize known plants into groupings similar in ecology and anatomy (a full 50 years ahead of the much more famous Carl Linneaus) . In doing so, he started us down the road to our modern understanding of plant relationships: for example, petunias, tomatoes, and potatoes are together in the family Solanaceae; roses and apples in the Rosaceae; and daffodils and garlic in the Amaryllidaceae. This is handy for organizing and learning plant diversity, of course – but ultimately it’s far more important than that. Although Magnol didn’t know it (and would likely have had religious objections if he did), his organizational system was one of our first steps toward realizing that all plants, and all life on Earth, have a common evolutionary origin and shared evolutionary history. It’s that evolutionary history that accounts for our ability to organize them into genera, families, and so on – we group daffodils with garlic because they share features, and they share features because they’re close kin that have diverged relatively recently; daffodils and hemlock trees, on the other hand, are much more distant relatives. This fact is the foundation of all modern biology, and every spring the blossoms on our Magnolia trees celebrate Magnol’s contribution.

What’s in a Latin name? Botany, geography, history; and above all, stories. Explore our Garden, and explore our Garden’s names.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) February 25, 2016 but licensed CC BY-SA 4.0



13 thoughts on “What’s in a (Latin) name?

  1. jeffollerton

    As an side point to this, I wonder then how Magnolia should be pronounced – presumably not as the Anglo-Saxon inflected “mag-nol-ee-a” but a more Gallic “mah-nyoh-lee-a”?

    There are lots of examples like this in botany, of which my favourite is Fuchsia – the prim-and-proper “few-shee-a” is no real replacement for the Germanic original 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. robertlampros

    Nice article. The last college I attended had Magnolia trees growing all over campus, and that’s where I met my girlfriend, so I wrote a love story involving a Magnolia tree. They’re cool looking trees, too, kind of tropical even though they survive cold weather.


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