In Plant Pronunciation, Part 1, we examined some of the vagaries in the pronunciation of “people plants,” or those whose Latin names honor a particular scientist or botanist. In Part 2, we’ll tackle a few tongue twisters and address some other common plant name slip-ups.
Not for Sissies -- Sisyrinchium, Anemone and Other Tongue Twisters Although it’s not a very long name, "anemone" can be a challenge to pronounce correctly and especially to repeat five times fast. Dictionaries and most plant pronunciation guides tell you to say ah-NEM-uh-nee. But you may run across this pronunciation suggestion in plant guides as well: an-eh-MOE-nee, which to my ears sounds more like a type of pasta. Does that mean the tentacled marine creatures named for their resemblance to the anemone flower should be called “an-eh-MOE-nees” as well? If so, someone had better tell the folks at National Geographic! The word derives from “anemos,” the Greek word for wind, similar to “anima” (breath or soul), and the source of familiar words such as animal and animate. The plant used to be known as windflower, perhaps because of its proclivity for growing in windswept areas.
Many of the ornamental grasses have unusual tongue-twisting names. Two of my favorites are helictotrichon (variously listed as hel-ik-toe-TRY-kon or he-lik-TO-tri-kon) sempervirens, or blue oat grass, and hakonechloa (hah-koe-neh-KLOE-uh) macra, also called hakone grass or Japanese forest grass. Helictrotrichon’s name derives from the Greek “helix,” meaning “spiral,” and “trichos,” meaning “hair.” Hakonechloa’s name comes from Hakon, a region in its native Japan, and “chloa,” the Greek word for grass.
The genus sisyrinchium (sis-ih-RIN-kee-um), commonly called blue-eyed grass, has grass-like leaves but is actually related to the iris. This tongue-twister possibly gets its name from the Barbary nut iris (Moraea sisyrinchium), whose corm the Greeks thought resembled “sisyra,” a shaggy goat’s-hair coat. The name might also derive from “sys” (pig) and “rynchos” (snout or muzzle), for the shape of the roots or the fact that pigs like the roots.
Silent and Not-So-Silent E’s The word astilbe has the appearance of a misprint -- at first glance, you want to pronounce it “astibile” or “astibel.” Its correct pronunciation, as-TIL-bee, sounds a bit like a stifled sneeze, and runs counter to an English language-speaker’s expectation that the “e” at the end of a word is silent. This odd name, from the Greek “a-” (not) and “stilbe” (glittering), seems like a bit of an insult to such a pretty plant, since many astilbe hybrids are quite eye-catching. Likewise, the cleome or spider flower, whose name is of obscure origin, has a three-syllable name in which the final “e” is sounded: klee-OH-mee.
The “e” is silent in lupine (LOO-pin), of the genus lupinus (loo-PYE-nus), as any fan of British comedy troupe Monty Python knows, thanks to their skit about an idiotic highwayman named Dennis Moore (played by John Cleese). He's something of a Robin Hood, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, except that he steals...lupines. Who can forget Michael Palin crying, “He seeks them here..he seeks them there...he seeks those LOO-pins everywhere! The murdering blackguard! He’s taken all our LOO-pins!” The name of this showy-flowered member of the pea family dates to the 14th century, and comes from the Latin meaning “of the wolf.” The reason for this is uncertain, except that perhaps the plant itself was considered a predator, since it was popularly believed to exhaust the soil.
Oh, My Darling Clematis, OR, Don’t Stress Out Figuring out which syllable to stress when you speak a plant name can be a real challenge. In some cases, it can completely change the meaning of the word! The word "viola" has only three simple syllables, but its pronunciation depends on the meaning you wish to convey. VI-uh-luh is the correct pronunciation of the plant species, which includes violets and pansies, while the vi-OH-luh is a stringed instrument. (Second fiddle to the violin, the viola is the Rodney Dangerfield of the orchestra -- perhaps that’s why the viola flower has a reputation for shyly hiding its head.)
Clematis, the most popular flowering vine in the U.S., clambers over trellises and fences in the east, west, north and south, but to hear some people talk, you might think we were growing two different plants. Has there ever been a plant more willfully mispronounced? And what is the correct pronunciation? You most likely stress the same syllable that your neighbors and friends do. You probably also find the other pronunciation weird, even a little embarrassing. Too hoity-toity, you may say. It sounds like a disease, others of you say. (For the record, the name derives from the Greek "klema," meaning twig or branch.) According to the American Clematis Society's FAQ page, the vine is correctly called KLEM-uh-tis, but many of us insist on pronouncing it the way we’ve heard it said all our lives, kli-MAT-is. Dictionaries list both pronunciations as being correct. Rather than focusing on our differences, let’s celebrate our mutual infatuation with this charming and versatile plant. I propose that we all just tolerantly chuckle at other people’s “wrong” pronunciation, and let it go at that.
Plant experts may roll their eyes when they hear the uninitiated mangle the word “cotoneaster,” but it’s an understandable pronunciation error, particularly when committed by those not schooled in botanical Latin. When we are confronted with an unfamiliar name, our brains are wired to look for patterns and seek out any parts of the word that look familiar -- in this case, cotton (if you weren’t sure how to spell it) and a well-known springtime holiday. Cotoneaster has nothing to do with fluffy white bolls or Easter rabbits, though. This woody, prostrate shrub derives its name from “cotone,” an old Latin name for quince, and the suffix “aster,” meaning “imperfectly resembling,” and thus is correctly pronounced either kah-TONE-ee-as-ter or kah-tone-ee-AS-ter, depending on your source. The plant has so often been called the “cotton easter”, however, that dictionaries list this as an alternate pronunciation.
After spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.