Left: Roses are one of the special attributes of Saint Dorothea, as shown in the detail of this stained-glass panel; Right: Rosa gallica officinalis blooming in Bonnefont garden. Remarkably, the rose has retained its ancient name in dozens of modern languages.
The rose has been known by the same name throughout Europe since antiquity. It began as vrda in ancient Persia (related to the modern Arabic warda) and became known as rhodon to the nearby ancient Greeks. (Oddly, the modern Greek for rose is triantafillo, meaning “thirty leaves,” while rhodon remains in our “rhododendron,” meaning “rose tree”). By the time of the Roman Empire the name had become rosa, immediately recognizable in most modern European languages—rosa (Italian and Spanish), roos (Dutch), ros (Swedish), rosier (French)—and many others, including the Japanese rozu.
As an intern for the Cloisters Gardens over the past few months, I developed an interest in the botanical names of the plants and began to look up them up as I worked. Unlike the rose, I discovered, most plants have had rather tumultuous histories. From the fourth century B.C. comes an early comprehensive list of plant names. Its author, Theophrastus is often cited as “the father of botany” for his list of approximately five hundred plants. Within a few centuries, Dioscorides amassed a list of six hundred plants, followed by Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History,” which reached one thousand plants. Although these authors sought to present a breadth of information about each plant, the task was complicated by the multitude of common names in use at any given time, and the fact that not all plants had a Greek or Latin name. In Physica, Hildegard of Bingen relied on her native German whenever Latin fell short. This lack of continuity and consistency rendered many accounts useless, and at the advent of the Renaissance plants were granted universal descriptive—if inefficient—titles. In an effort to encompass the plants’ properties these names routinely reached at least four or five words, and terms such as Tulipa polyclonos minor serotina flore rubro vel flanoo, Clusiji and Ranunculus Afiaticus gru mosa radice flore pleno sangui neo prolifero were ultimately too cumbersome for practical use. In 1753, Linnaeus devised the model of botanical nomenclature, in the form of a Latin binomial system, that is still in use today, drastically reducing confusion.
Despite its logical and practical foundation, Linnaeus’ nomenclature can be surprisingly whimsical. Names evoke images of mythical dryads, centaurs, and gods, as well as the gruesome in plants named for bloodied hair (Phaenocoma prolifera) and kidney scales (Nephrolepis hirsutula). Linnaeus also used his naming powers to exact revenge on his enemies by lending their names to unpleasant plants. A critic of Linnaeus, Johann Siesbeck, earned the namesake Siegesbeckia, a foul-smelling weed.
Carline thistle (Carlina acaulis), left, and herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), right. The medieval associations of these plants have left an impression on even their modern botanical names.
Despite continuous attempts to standardize plant nomenclature, common names have persistently dominated speech, and even permeate Linnaean structure, tamed into a docile two-word, Latinized format. The carline thistle and herb Robert are two such plants. The thistle (Carlina acaulis) takes its name from Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus in Latin), the famed king of France known for his contributions to an intellectual and cultural revival in Europe under his reign from 771 to 814.
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) is thought to take its name from one of two medieval figures, either Saint Rupert of Salzburg or a hobgoblin named Robin Goodfellow. (For more on herb Robert, see “Saint or Sprite?” June 17, 2011.) Many such titles are survivors of the Middle Ages, and bring their medieval lore with them into contemporary vernacular and botanical nomenclature. (For more plant names with interesting etymologies, see “Open Sesame,” August 3, 2012, and “Hell Flowers,” March 24, 2010.)
Hunt, Tony. Plant Names of Medieval England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1989.
Plowden, C. Chicheley. A Manual of Plant Names. New York: Philosophical Library, 1969.
Johnson, A. T., and H. A. Smith. Plant Names Simplified. Buckenhill, Bromyard, Herefordshire: Landsmanshop, 1972.
Hildegard, and Priscilla Throop. Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts, 1998.
Besler, Basilius, and Gérard G. Aymonin. The Besler Florilegium: Plants of the Four Seasons. Trans. Eileen Finletter and Jean Ayer. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1989.
Harper, Douglas. “Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001–2012.