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A Gardener's Handbook of Plant Names: Their Meanings and Origins

A Gardener's Handbook of Plant Names: Their Meanings and Origins

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by A. W. Smith

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First compact dictionary to combine definitions of botanical names in general usage with information on their derivation and guides to pronunciation. A monumental index provides a cross-reference from some 1,800 common plant names to corresponding botanical ones. Combines thoroughness, botanical rigor, and interesting facts and lore — all leavened with


First compact dictionary to combine definitions of botanical names in general usage with information on their derivation and guides to pronunciation. A monumental index provides a cross-reference from some 1,800 common plant names to corresponding botanical ones. Combines thoroughness, botanical rigor, and interesting facts and lore — all leavened with touches of humor.

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A Gardener's Handbook of Plant Names

Their Meanings and Origins

By A. W. Smith

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1997 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-32005-2


Some Botanical Definitions


A dry, one-seeded fruit that does not split. The "seeds" of a strawberry are achenes, and, correctly, are the fruit rather than the edible pulp in which they are embedded.


A plant that has become accidentally established in the wild, sometimes only for a brief period. Many of the commonest American wildflowers—including chicory, dandelion, and all the clovers—are foreigners and therefore adventives. Some wildflower books tend to banish all adventives from the select company of the strictly native, often to the confusion of identification. However, it is not wise to be too national about wildflowers. Seeds have an extraordinary power of survival and seize any opportunity for travel—in the coats of animals and clothing of men, in the bellies of birds and beasts, on sea drifts. The means are limitless.

There is, for instance, in Scotland a stream warmed by water from a woolen mill where Australian flowers once flourished in temperate conditions, having arrived as seeds in the baled fleeces. The wool nowadays arrives in much cleaner condition. Although many of the "introductions" have now died out, there remain one or two survivors.


A plant which lasts only one year, perpetuating itself by seed.


The pollen-bearing part of the stamen. Supported by the filament, it forms the male portion of a flower.


A plant living in or growing near water.


A plant which fruits and dies in its second year.


The delicate powdery deposit on certain fruits like grape and plum and on some leaves, giving the latter a bluish or gray-bluish tint (see glaucous).


The leaflike or membranous leaf or scale growing below the calyx or peduncle of many flowers. It is sometimes brightly colored and is, visually, of more importance than the flower. The scarlet petals of poinsettia and the pink or white petals of dogwood are all bracts.


Swollen stem and leaf bases forming a spherical mass.


The whorl of "leaves" (sepals) forming the outer covering of the flower bud.


One of the cells of a compound fruit or pistil, or the single cell of a simple fruit or pistil.


Fringed with hairs (cilia).


Moist or sticky.


The portions of a filament which support the lobes of the anther.


The petals of a flower collectively.


Stem-base swollen to bulbous shape.


A flower cluster in which the individual outer-flower stalks are elongated to make the cluster flat-topped or nearly so. It blooms from the outside inward toward the center.


Literally, a hidden marriage. A plant which does not produce flowers or seeds in the ordinarily understood sense, such as ferns, mosses, lichens, and fungi.


A broad, branching, often flat-topped flower cluster blooming from the center to the edges. The main stalk is always topped by a flower.


Dropping leaves, petals, fruit, etc., in a particular season, as opposed to persistent or evergreen.


The splitting or other mode of opening of a seed pod to discharge seeds. Dehiscence can be quite violent, as in castor oil plant and common broom.


Having unisexual male and female flowers borne on separate plants (e.g., holly).


A flattened round part of a plant. The group of tubular florets forming the flower center of plants of the daisy family (Compositae).


A stone fruit, such as peach, cherry, olive, plum.


A plant which grows on another, but which is generally not parasitic in the sense of drawing nourishment from the host but only in using it as a growth site. Included are the air plants and other perchers which are fed from the air and often establish on fence and telephone wires.


In a flower, that slender part of the stamen which supports the anther.


One of the individual and often small flowers which comprise the flower head of plants of the daisy family (Compositae). Also, more generally, any small flower which is part of a dense cluster.


A dry, one-chambered fruit splitting along one seam (peony, milkweed, monkshood).


Smooth, without hair.


Of bluish or gray-green color due to a covering of fine whitish or grayish powder called bloom.


A cluster or head of flowers.


The chaff-like bract which forms an outer envelope in the inflorescence of grasses and sedges or in the husks of wheat and other grain.


A plant of which the stem does not become woody and persistent but dies down to the ground (or entirely) after flowering. Also applied to plants which are used for medicine or for their scent or flavor.


The membranous scale covering the sorus of a fern.


An arrangement of flowers in a cluster.


A rosette or whorl of bracts surrounding the base of an inflorescence, as in cornflower.


Having separate male and female flowers on the same plant (cucumber, pumpkin, melon).


The part of the flower which secretes nectar, the chief source of honey.


A loose, irregularly spreading flower cluster, blooming from the center or bottom to the edges or top.


The feathery or bristly appendage on the seeds of Compositae.


A small stalk, but especially the subordinate stalk bearing the individual flowers of an inflorescence.


The main stalk of a flower cluster or the stalk of a solitary flower.


Plants which remain alive through a number of years.


Collective term for the calyx and corolla, especially when these are more or less indistinguishable as in many monocotyledons (e.g., lilies).


The complete female organ of reproduction.


A member of the vegetable kingdom. In common use, usually excluding trees and shrubs.


The stone of stone fruits (e.g., olive, plum, peach).


An elongated inflorescence in which the flowers are arranged on short, nearly equal pedicels blooming from the bottom up (lily-of-the-valley, squill).


One of the petals radiating from the disk in such flowers as daisy, sunflower, aster.


Creeping, usually thickened, underground stem.


Living on decayed vegetable matter.


A flower stalk, generally leafless, rising straight from the ground (e.g., tulip, primrose).


With flowers or leaves arranged on one side only of a stalk.


Lacking a stalk.


A woody plant smaller than a tree.


The collection of spore cases in or under which are the spores of ferns.


The thick, often fleshy, spike of flowers in members of the Arum family and certain other genera.


The minute reproductive organ of flowerless plants such as ferns and mosses.


The male organ in a flower.


The organ at the termination of style and ovary which receives pollen and pollination.


The small leaflike or membranous organ found at the base of many leaf stalks.


A horizontal stem on or just below the ground from the tip of which a new plant grows. Also a bent shoot that takes root.


The shanklike connection between ovary and stigma.


Herbs with a juicy structure adapted to dry situations.


Growing in the soil.


A woody perennial plant having a trunk for its main stem and growing to a considerable size.


A non-technical term for a compact flower cluster at the end of a stalk, as in lilac.


A small tuber. Also the nodules on the roots of most legumes; also the knoblike growths on many cacti.


A flower cluster in which all the individual flower stalks arise from one point to form a flat-topped or ball-like cluster (onion).


Meanings and Origins of Plant Names



Prefix in compound words of Greek origin signifying a negative, lacking, or contrary to. Thus apetalus, lacking petals; Alyssum, against madness.

abbreviatus, -a, -um [ab-ree-vi-AY-tus]

Shortened; abbreviated.

Abelia [ab-EE-lia]

Ornamental shrubs named for Dr. Clarke Abel (1780-1826), who, at the suggestion of Sir Joseph Banks, accompanied Lord Amherst on his embassy to Peking (18161817) as botanist. Much of his collection was lost by shipwreck on the way home to Kew. Except for a Russian ecclesiastical mission, no European naturalist was to visit China for nearly thirty years thereafter, Robert Fortune (see Fortunella) being among the first to follow. Abel died in India while serving as personal physician to Lord Amherst, who was by that time Governor-General.

Abies [AB-i-eez]

Fir. The classical Latin name.

abietinus, -a, -um [ab-i-ee-TY-nus]

Resembling the fir tree.

Abobra [ab-O-bra]

Latinized form of the Brazilian name for this vine of the cucumber family.

abortivus, -a, -um [ab-or-TY-vus]

With parts missing; imperfect.

abricock [ab-RI-cock]

Antique English spelling of apricot.

Abroma [ab-RO-ma]

Gr. a, not; broma, food. These evergreen trees are mildly poisonous.

Abronia [ab-RO-nia]

Sand verbena, wild lantana. Gr. abros, delicate; in allusion to the appearance of the bracts beneath the flower of these herbs.

Abrophyllum [ab-ro-FILL-um]

Gr. abros, delicate; phyllon, a leaf. The leaves of these Australian shrubs have a delicate appearance.

abrotanifolius, -a, -um [ab-ro-tay-ni-FO-lius]

Having leaves resembling southernwood.

abrotanum [ab-ro-TAY-num]

Ancient Latin name and now the specific name of southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum, orginally spelled abrotonum).

abruptus, -a, -um [ab-RUP-tus]

Ending suddenly; abrupt.

Abrus [AB-rus]

Wild licorice. Gr. abros, delicate; in allusion to the soft leaves. The root has the property of licorice of poor quality. The seeds, bright scarlet with black spots, are used in India as weights and are strung as beads.

abscissus, -a, -um [ab-SISS-us]

Ending abruptly; cut off.

absinthium [ab-SIN-thi-um]

Latin and pre-Linnaean name for wormwood, the botanical name for which is now Artemisia absinthium. It gives the flavor to absinthe. In biblical days it was a symbol of calamity and sorrow.

Abutilon [ab-YEW-til-on]

Flowering maple. From the Arabic name for a mallowlike plant.

abyssinicus, -a, -um [ab-iss-IN-ik-us]


Acacia [ak-AY-sha]

The Greek name for the tree. Derived from Gr. akis, a sharp point.

Acaena [ass-EE-na]

New Zealand bur. Gr. akaina, a thorn. The name derives from the spines on the calyx of these low-growing shrubs or herbs.

Acalypha [ak-al-LY-fa]

Copper leaf. Ancient Greek name for nettle but applied by Linnaeus to this genus of shrubs or herbs because of the nettlelike appearance of the leaves.

Acampe [ak-AM-pe]

Gr. akampes, inflexible or brittle. The flowers of these epiphytic orchids are brittle and break off easily.

acanth [ak-anth]

In compound words signifying spiny, spiky, or thorny.

acanthifolius, -a, -um [ak-anth-i-FO-lius]

With leaves like Acanthus.

Acanthium [ak-ANTH-ium]

Pre-Linnaean name for the Scotch thistle.

Acanthocereus [ak-anth-o-SEE-reus]

Trailing or climbing cactus. Gr. akanthos, a thorn; Cereus, cactus.

acanthocomus, -a, -um [ak-an-tho-KO-mus]

Having spiny hairs.

Acantholimon [ak-an-tho-LY-mon]

Prickly thrift. Gr. akanthos, a thorn; limon, Statice or sealavender, which it resembles.

Acanthopanax [ak-an-tho-PAY-nax]

Gr. akanthos, a thorn; Panax, ginseng, which this genus of trees and shrubs resembles.

Acanthophoenix [ak-an-tho-FEE-nix]

Spine-areca. Gr. akanthos, a thorn; Phoenix, which is both the Greek and the modern genus name for the date palm, which Acanthophoenix resembles.

Acanthorhiza [ak-an-tho-RY-za]

Gr. akanthos, a thorn; rhiza, a root. The rootlets of these palms are spiny.

Acanthus [ak-AN-thus]

Greek name meaning thorn. In America it is called "bear's breech" from the size and appearance of the leaf which is very big, broad, and distinctly hairy. The acanthus leaf was a favorite decoration in classical sculpture, as in the capital of the Corinthian column. In England the bear has been dressed up and it is now called "bear's breeches" despite long-standing authority to the contrary.

acaulis, -is, -e [ak-AW-lis]

Stemless or with only very short stems.

-aceae [-AY-se-ee]

An ending used in the names of plant families denoting "belonging to the family of." Thus "Rosaceae," belonging to the rose family. Of a total of nearly three hundred plant families, only a few dozen concern the general gardener and the interest is largely botanical. This ending is almost universal, a few of the eight exceptions being "Compositae" (daisies), "Gramineae" (grasses), "Leguminoseae" (legumes). The English equivalent is -aceous, as in rosaceous.

acephalus, -a, -um [ay-SEFF-al-us]

Without a head.

Acer [AY-ser]

Latin name for the maple tree. The word also means sharp and is in reference to the hardness of the wood, which the Romans used for spear hafts.

acer, acris, acre [AY-ser, AY-kris, AY-kree]

Sharp; pungent. Used both in the sense of keen and in relation to taste.

Aceranthus [ay-ser-ANTH-us]

Maplewort. L. Acer, maple; Gr. anthos, a flower.

acerbus, -a, -um [as-ERB-us]

Bitter; sour. Also rough to touch.

acerifolius, -a, -um [ay-ser-i-FO-lius]

With leaves resembling maple.

aceroides [ay-ser-OY-deez]

Resembling maple.

acerosus, -a, -um [ay-ser-O-sus]

Chaffy; needlelike.

acetosa, acetosella [ay-se-TO-sa]

Pre-Linnaean names for common sorrel and other plants with acid leaves. From L. acetum, vinegar.

Achillea [ak-il-EE-a]

Yarrow or sneezewort. The Greek name honors Achilles, the heroic warrior of the Trojan wars. As a youth, he was taught the properties of this plant in healing wounds by his tutor Cheiron the Centaur who was half horse and half man. This useful piece of knowledge was highly regarded and was regularly applied in medicine until relatively recent times. Achilles himself had the good fortune to be almost entirely invulnerable—his mother, Thetis, having dipped him as a baby into the River Styx. As a result he was vulnerable only in the heel where his mother's forefinger and thumb had held him during the process of immersion. In the end, the god Apollo directed the arrow of Paris to this one spot and it proved fatal.

"Sneezewort" derives from the fact that since ancient times one common species Achillea ptarmica (Greek for sneeze-making) has been used as a kind of snuff.

achilleifolius, -a, -um [ak-ill-eye-FO-lius]

With leaves resembling Achillea millefolium or milfoil.

Achimines [ak-i-MEE-neez]

Gr. a, not; cheimino, to suffer from cold. This genus of tropical American herbs will not stand any chilling.

Achlys [AK-lis]

Deer-foot. Vanilla leaf. Named for a minor Greek goddess of hidden places—an allusion to the woodland habitat of this genus of perennial herbs.

Achras [AK-ras]

A tropical evergreen tree with edible fruit. Name of Greek derivation for a kind of wild pear and applied to the sapote or marmalade plum which has been described as "melting and has the sweet perfumes of honey, jasmine, and lily-of-the-valley."

acicularis, -is, -e [ay-sik-you-LAIR-is]

Shaped like a needle; needlelike.

aciculus, -a,-um [ay-SIK-you-lus]

Sharply pointed.

Acidanthera [as-id-AN-the-ra]

Gr. akis, a point; anthera, anthers. The flower of these cormous plants has pointed anthers.

acidissimus, -a, -um [as-id-ISS-im-us]

Very sour, indeed.

acidosus, -a, -um [as-id-O-sus]

Acid; sour.

acidus, -a, -um [ASS-id-us]

Acid; sour.

acinaceus, -a, -um [ass-in-AY-seus]

Shaped like a curved sword or scimitar.

acinacifolius, -a, -um [ass-in-ay-si-FO-lius]

With leaves shaped like a curved sword or scimitar.

acinaciformis, -is, -e [ass-in-ay-si-FORM-is]

Like a curved sword or scimitar.

Acineta [ass-in-EE-ta]

Gr. akineta, without movement, in reference to the immobile lip of the flower of these epiphytic orchids.

Ackama [ak-AY-ma]

Derivation not certain but probably from the trees' native antipodean name.


Excerpted from A Gardener's Handbook of Plant Names by A. W. Smith. Copyright © 1997 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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