What’s In A (Plant) Name?

Research for a recent plant-related project led me down some rabbit holes of word etymology, and I thought I’d share with you here a few of the most intriguing facts I learnt:

  • The name basil comes from the Greek word basilikon phuton meaning ‘royal/kingly plant’ probably because it was believed to have been used in making royal perfumes.
  • Bergamot is named after the hilltop Italian city of Bergamo in Lombardy where this species of orange tree was originally cultivated. The city was called Bergamum in Roman times after the German word ‘berg’.
  • Called kamai melon (‘ground/earth apple’) by the ancient Greeks, the botanical name of chamomile, matricaria, refers to its role as a herb used to treat gynaecological symptoms like menstrual cramps and PMS.
  • The botanical name of geranium, pelargonium, derives from the Greek pelargos, meaning ‘stork’, either in reference to the herb’s long, bill-like seeds or because the seed head looks like a stork’s beak.

A species of geranium growing in Reunion Island

  • The name grapefruit comes from the grapelike cluster in which the fruits grow, although some say it’s so called for its taste.
  • Jasmine is derived from the Persian yasameen, which means ‘fragrant flower’ or ‘gift from God’ (depending on sources).
  • Lavender supposedly takes its name from the Latin lavare, meaning ‘to wash’, as it was said to have been used to scent baths, cosmetic waters, and natural deodorants in Roman times. However this could be apocryphal and the name may come from Latin livere meaningblueish’.

Lavender growing near Traverse City, Michigan, USA

  • Belonging to the same family as tarragon (see below), mugwort is derived from the Old English mucg wyrt, meaning ‘marsh plant’ or ‘midge plant’ depending on sources. (Wort is an old English word for ‘root’). When I lived in South Korea, Korean mugwort was commonly used as a culinary herb.

Ssuktteok (Korean mugwort rice cakes)

  • The word myrrh entered the English language from the Bible, and the name of this natural resin native to the Horn of Africa comes from Semitic sources (e.g. the Arabic word murr) meaning ‘[was] bitter’.
  • Narcissus possibly derives from the Greek narkao – to be numb – due to the plant’s sedative, narcotic properties.
  • Neroli – an expensive essential oil produced from the blossom of the bitter orange tree and reportedly one of the ingredients in Coca-Cola – takes it name from the influential 17th-century Princess of Nerola who reportedly used it as her trademark fragrance to perfume her gloves and bath.
  • The name oregano derives from the Greek words gános and óros meaning ‘joy/brightness/ornament of the mountain’
  • The botanical name of the herb sage is salvia officinalis (salvia means ‘healthy’ in Latin); the older common name originates from the Latin salvare which means ‘heal’.
  • St John’s Wort is so named because the species blossoms near the summer solstice and the feast day of St John the Baptist on 24 June.

St John’s Wort flowers

  • The name mandarin comes from the fruit which was a traditional gift to Chinese mandarins (imperial bureaucrat-scholars)
    • Tangerine was first used to describe mandarin fruit shipped from Morocco’s third-largest city, Tangier.
  • Tarragon‘s name is related to that of dragons, either as a description of the way the root seems to coil up like a dragon, or from an ancient use as antidote to the bites of venomous creatures. Its botanical name is Artemisia dracunculus.
  • Although we mainly know thyme as a culinary herb, the word actually derives from the ancient Greek thymos meaning ‘to smoke/perfume/burn’ as they used it to fumigate against infectious illnesses.
  • Although commonly – but poetically – mistranslated as ‘flower of flowers’, Ylang-ylang actually means “wilderness” in Tagalog, alluding to the tree’s natural habitat.

Ylang-ylang in my garden

With a few exceptions, these plants have existed since long before humans first started using, and then talking about them, and in some cases we may never know the true origin of some names, lost in the mists of time.

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