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.

Related posts:

Lost Words

A research paper by Cambridge University conservationists found that children are better at identifying Pokémon characters than real animals and plants. In a 2008 National Trust survey, only a third of eight- to 11-year-olds could identify a magpie, though nine out of 10 could name a Dalek. A 2017 RSPB “Birdwatch” survey found that half of 2,000 adults couldn’t identify a house sparrow, a quarter didn’t know a blue tit or a starling, and a fifth thought a red kite wasn’t a bird. In a 2017 Wildlife Trusts survey a third of adults were unable to identify a barn owl, and three-quarters unable to identify an ash tree.

Why am I telling you this? Because yesterday I attended a beautiful exhibition called ‘The Lost Words’ that attempts to “conjure back the magic, beauty and strangeness of the nature that surrounds us”. Devised to take children and adults on a journey through 20 ‘lost words’ from ‘Acorn‘ to ‘Wren‘, each word becomes an acrostic spell written by Robert Macfarlane. Each of the twenty plants or creatures has been painted three times by artist Jackie Morris: first absent from its habitat (e.g. pawprints in the snow or a lone feather), then its return (generally painted on a gold background), and finally in its natural environment (see for example the Kingfisher). Below are some of the poems and paintings:

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

The other Lost Words not shown above are:  BluebellConkerDandelionHeronRavenWeaselWillowWren.

The book Lost Words: A Spell Book by Macfarlane and Morris was published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton. The exhibition I saw is in Inverleith House at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh until 2nd September 2018.

Anyone with an interest in nature, words and images, and who wants to explore further some of the ideas and creatures conjured up by ‘The Lost Words’ can download a free explorer’s guide from the John Muir Trust here.

I’ll end with this quote by Macfarlane:   “Language is written deeply and richly into our relationships with landscape and with nature: there as the place-hames on our maps, and the many names of species, common and rare, with which we share our lives “

See also: