Sunday, June 10, 2012

Common Names - say what?

People love to use common names when discussing plants. I know that scientific names are intimidating: they are hard to remember and hard to pronounce. Even when we get some easy ones (remember Aster?), some taxonomist decides to change things around (North American asters are now in the genus Symphyotrichum – come on, guys!). Sometimes though I have to scratch my head about how they came up with some of these common names!

Helmet flower, Scutellaria integrifolia

Many common names are given based on appearance or characteristic – things like ladyslipper (Cypripedium spp.), copperleaf (a weed you may recognize from your yard: Acalypha virginica) and beardtongue (Penstemon spp.) clearly describe some aspect of appearance while summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are based on fragrance/smell. Some are a little less obvious – buckeye (Aesculus spp.) must describe how the round shiny nut resembles the eye of a deer, but you don’t know that until the plant is mature enough to produce nuts.

Then there are the plants whose name reflects what people thought they could cure: liverwort, spleenwort, toothwort, bladderwort, birthwort, navelwort ... and all those other "worts": sandwort, nailwort, ragwort, lousewort, hornwort, butterwort, milkwort, pillwort, figwort, starwort, umbrellawort (seriously?),  spiderwort, bellwort, soapwort, coolwort, awlwort, pearlwort,  waterdropwort (ok, now we're just getting silly). Look: here's a list in Wikipedia of plants just with "wort" in their name. It should not come as a surprise that the word "wort" is related to an old English word for "plant".

Beyond all the silly wort names, here are some of the plants I have (and love) with doofy common names.

Helmet flower (Scutellaria spp.) - more commonly known as skullcap but I came across this common name when I was researching one of the new species that I found recently.  Based on those two common names, clearly folks felt this flower was some sort of headgear!  To me it's just a beautiful summer perennial.

Fly poison (Amianthium muscitoxicum)
Fly poison (Amianthium muscitoxicum) - according to, "Pulp from a crushed bulb, mixed with sugar, is used to poison flies, hence the species name, from the Latin muscae (flies) and toxicum (poison)."  I'd like to know who was the first one to figure THAT out? I'm not going to waste any of my bulbs that way.

Beetleweed (Galax urceolata) - I could find no reason for this name. It's a very desirable evergreen plant that doesn't seem weedy at all, let alone weedy for beetles.
Beetleweed (Galax urceolata)

 Scorpionweed (Phacelia spp.) - must we call everything a weed? This is a beautiful spring flowering plant that likes to seed around in places that have good soil. Seems like a benefit to me, not a bad trait. Apparently the name refers to the shape of the flower cluster, curling like a scorpion's tail.  Phacelia bipinnatifida is the one most common around here, although perhaps one day I'll get to see it's cousin Phacelia purshii which is curiously known as "Miami mist".

Phacelia bipinnatifida
Chamaelirium luteum

Fairywand (Chamaelirium luteum) - well at last a somewhat complimentary name! I think we can all guess that someone fancied these petite flowers to be magic wands belonging to fairies. It is a great little perennial that has both male (small, curved wands) and female plants (tall, upright wands).

Here are some names that I came across while looking at pictures posted on Facebook from the Georgia Botanical Society:

Twining snoutbean (Rhynchosia tomentosa) - since when do beans have snouts?
Climbing dogbane (Trachelospermum difforme) - not the only dogbane around; others (Apocynum spp.) resemble milkweeds based on their appearance.
Prairie blue hearts (Buchnera americana) - a very sweet name, but why?
Western marbleseed (Onosmodium occidentale) - makes me want to see what the seeds look like!

And here's one I found while researching some of these other plants: Turricula parryi, known by the common name poodle-dog bush. I think that's gotta be our winner. Native to southern California so I doubt I'll come across one.

If you'd like to read more about why scientific/botanical names are so much more helpful than common names, please read my friend Mary's article here. In the meantime, practice your Latin so we can understand what you're talking about.


  1. So much fun! It's so much easier to remember funny names like these, since there's always some sort of visual image you can associate with the plant. I've often wondered where these silly names come from, like bugbane (cimicifuga). Based on the definition of "bane", you'd think it would repel bugs, but instead it attracts them like crazy-makes no sense!

  2. Always interesting to read about plants and their origins! If only all those "worts" and "banes" worked :-)

  3. Excellent post! Same with common bird names..Red Bellied Woodpecker..head flaming for a faint blush on it's belly..Ring Necked duck has a ring in it's bill.. It's all in a name but why? Lost in the mists of time..

  4. Loved this-- my current favorite "wort" is spiderwort...tradescantia virginiana. It's practically foolproof (this helps me a lot), and is of "special value to bees & bumblebees," per And I find it interesting that "barrenwort" has a reputation as an aphrodisiac--but it's aimed at the men, so how does THAT name work? :D

  5. I'm learning that with native plants it is especially important to use the latin name to be sure you are getting a native and not a cultivar. I really liked this post.