Garden Beasts, Imaginary and Real
Platycodon (plat-ee-KOE-dun) may sound like the name of a dinosaur, but it's actually a charming plant more often called Japanese bellflower. Another common name, balloon flower, perfectly describes the spherical shape of the blossoms right before they open, and is much more memorable than its scientific name, unless you are familiar with its Greek roots: “platys” (broad) and “kodon” (bell).
Centaurea (variously sen-TOR-ee-ah and sen-taw-REE-uh) has been a garden resident for centuries, and was used to treat illnesses in medieval times. Perhaps its name sounds so much like a garden beast because of its origin in Greek mythology. Centaurs were a race of war-beasts who were half-man, half-horse. According to legend, one particularly peaceful centaur named Chiron used the flowers of this plant to heal wounds. Centaurea is better known as the bachelor's button, for its use as a lapel flower, or cornflower, for its habit of growing in corn fields.
The delightfully-named liriope (lir-RYE-oh-pee) also derives from Greek mythology. Liriope was a naiad, or water nymph, and mother to Narcissus, the beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection. Although neither a grass nor a lily, the common name of this tough, undemanding ground cover is lilyturf.
|Platycodon grandiflorus 'Sentimental Blue'
The source of the name gladiolus (glad-ee-OH-lus) dates to the time of Greek and Roman myth, though it is based not on legend but on a very real weapon. A Roman sword was a “gladius,” while a little sword was a “gladiolus.” It is easy to see how the name became applied to this colorful plant with sword-shaped leaves and spiky flower stalks.
The echinops (EK-in-ops) is one garden “beast” named after an actual creature that can be found in gardens in some parts of the world. It derives from the Greek words “echinos” (hedgehog) and “opis” (appearance). The dense, spiny, globe-like flowers of this plant, commonly called globe thistle, certainly do resemble little, colorful hedgehogs.
Located nearby in the botanical dictionary, and similarly spiky, is the eryngium (air-ING-ee-um), from the Greek meaning "sea holly," which is the plant's common name. One particular variety, E. giganteum, is nicknamed “Miss Willmott’s Ghost” after the famous English gardener Ellen Willmott. Apparently she was in the habit of scattering seeds of these short-lived perennials, whose silvery flowers give them a spectral appearance.
|Gladiolus x hortulanus 'Jubilee'
For a plant featuring Halloween costume-worthy flowers that persist late into the autumn, tricyrtis (try-SIR-tiss) is an appropriately mysterious-sounding moniker. This shade lover gets its name from the Latin “tri” (three) and “kyrtos” (humped), for the shape and number of spurs that are part of its petals. Even its nickname, toad lily, is pleasantly creepy, possibly deriving from the warty appearance of the backs of the orchid-like flowers.
Plant or Dreaded Disease?
If the plant name achillea (ack-ih-LEE-uh) reminds you of a foot disorder, you’re not far off the mark, because it comes from the same root as the Achilles tendon, which runs between calf and heel. Both names derive from Achilles, the hero of Homer’s “Iliad,” who supposedly used the achillea plant to heal his wounded soldiers. (Achilles himself was mortally wounded by an arrow to the heel -- hence, a person’s fatal flaw is his “Achilles heel.”) Because achillea was believed to be particularly useful in treating wounds caused by iron, Civil War battlefield surgeons applied this plant to bullet wounds. Achillea's common name, yarrow, comes from an Old English word that possibly derives from the same root as the word "yellow."
The name antirrhinum (an-tihr-RYE-num) sounds like it's straight out of Harry Potter’s Herbology class, perhaps describing a powerful counter-spell for a magic-induced illness. But it’s really just the scientific name for an old garden favorite, deriving from the Greek “anti” (like) and “rhin” (nose), for the flower’s similarity to a snout. The plant's common name, snapdragon, describes an age-old children's pastime. By pressing the sides of the flower, you can open and close the make-believe jaws of an obliging "dragon."
||Antirrhinum majus 'Chantilly Peach'|
Cimicifuga (sim-ih-sih-FEW-gah or sye-mih-SIFF-you-guh, depending on your source) isn’t a “bug” that makes you sick, but it really does have a “buggy” name. Cimicifuga derives from the Latin “cimex” or bug, since its flowers’ powerful scent was believed to act as an insect repellent. (Another name for the plant is bugbane.) The dried rhizomes and roots were once used as a sedative and as treatment for rheumatism and chorea. This plant is closely related to Actaea, and is sometimes included in that genus. Actaea racemosa, also called black cohosh or fairy candles, is even today a popular alternative treatment for hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause.
Echinacea (Eh-kih-NAY-shah or ek-in-AY-see-uh) -- a description of the aches and pains accompanying a cold and the flu? Far from it! Echinacea or coneflower is in fact a time-honored herbal medicine that may help ward off such symptoms. From the Latin “echinatus” or prickly, the plant name echinacea, like echinops, ultimately derives from the Latin word for hedgehog. In this case, the little hedgehog is the not the flower itself, which is daisy-like, but the spiny “cone” or seed head that gives the plant its common name, coneflower.
Phlox (floks) isn’t an upset stomach, it’s a "phunny" name for one of the loveliest and longest-blooming perennials of spring and summer. From the Greek “phlox,” meaning “flame,” this name was originally applied to a completely different plant, now unknown (undoubtedly a reference to brightly colored blossoms or leaves). Somehow the moniker phlox became tied to an abundant, sweet-smelling North American native plant. Today phlox can be had in a huge variety of colors and bi-colors, both pastels and brights.
|Actaea simplex (Cimicifuga)
||Echinacea purpurea 'Little Annie'
||Phlox paniculata 'Laura'
Is polemonium (po-lee-MOE-nee-um) perhaps the name of the temporary plant-buying mania that besets gardeners when they enter a garden center in May? No, it’s just a pretty little early summer bloomer called Jacob’s ladder. The scientific name may derive from the Greek “polemos” or war, supposedly because two princes disputed the honor of discovering the plant, which was highly regarded for its medicinal qualities. Another possibility is that it was named for herbalist and healer Polemon of Cappadocia. The common name Jacob's ladder, an Old Testament reference to Jacob's dream of a ladder to heaven, describes the rung-like arrangement of the plant’s leaves.
The plant name ratibida (ruh-TIBB-ih-duh) might bring to mind thoughts of rats and the plague, and in fact this curious name really is surrounded by an air of mystery. Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, an eccentric and largely self-taught naturalist who roamed the U.S. in the early 19th century, left no explanation as to why he named this cheerful-looking native prairie plant as he did. (Rafinesque was ultimately honored with his own plant genus, Rafinesquia, a decidedly more graceful-sounding name.) Ratibida’s common name, Mexican hat, is quite apt, since the columnar central cone surrounded by colorful floppy petals looks very much like a tiny broad-brimmed sombrero.
Just hearing the name spiraea (spy-REE-ah) might be enough to make you start scratching, but it’s a woody shrub, not a skin disease. The name -- often spelled spirea -- derives from the Greek “speiraiara,” a plant used in ancient times to create garlands, ultimately from “speiros,” or spiral. The spiraea’s connection to celebratory occasions continues in modern times, since many call the lovely Spiraea prunifolia, with its cascading panicles of delicate white flowers, by the name "bridal wreath."
|Polemonium reptans 'Heaven Scent'
||Ratibida columifera||Spiraea prunifolia
I hope this series of articles about plant names and their pronunciation has piqued your interest in botanical nomenclature as it has mine. Learning the story behind a plant’s name can be just as interesting as watching it grow in your garden!
"100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names"; Diana Wells; 1997; Algonquin Books
"Garden of Words"; Martha Barnette; 1992; Times Books
Photos thanks to DG Photographers:
Erygium agavifolium (Agave-leaved sea holly) by Happenstance
Platycodon gradiflorus 'Sentimental Blue by hczone6
Centaurea cyanus by Starshine
Lirope spicata by palmbob
Gladiolus x hortulanus ‘Jubilee’ by jessmerritt
Echinops ritro by TamiMcNally
Eryngium giganteum by Kell
Tricyrtis hirta by kat7
Achillea ‘Moonshine’ by kniphofia
Antirrhinum majus ‘Chantilly Peach’ by AnnieHayes
Actaea simplex by growin
Echinaea purpurea ‘Little Annie’ by bjammin12
Phlox paniculata ‘Laura’ by tcfromky
Polemonium reptans ‘Heaven Scent’ by DaylilySLP
Ratibida columnifera by Dave
Spiraea prunifolia by stormyla