As you walk around a garden, you are surrounded by living memorials to people long dead. Mahonia and Camellia in winter, Forsythia and Magnolia in spring, Buddleia and Escallonia in summer, Dahlia and Fuchsia in autumn – all are named after people.
No wonder the Latin names of plants are so varied and sometimes difficult to pronounce – I’m thinking Kniphofia here (named after Kniphof), Fuchsia (named after Fuchs), and Choisya (named after Choisy)… I’ve only just realised that last one, and now I’ll never spell it wrongly as “Choysia” again. That’s the thing – I’m a stickler for spelling and knowing where names come from helps.
When botanists started giving Latin names to plants and ran out of folk names or descriptive names to Latinise, they turned to their friends and supporters for inspiration.
Most European native plants do have Latin names derived from their long-established “common” names, such as Rosa (rose) and Lilium (lily).
Then sometimes the plant name comes from its properties – such as Pulmonaria – Latinised from “lungwort”, a name it had because its leaves are liked spotted lungs – which also led to its “sympathetic” use to treat lung infections.
But then European botanists had to create new Latin names for plants brought in from beyond Europe. Some were named for their obvious features, such as Rhododendron (from “rose-coloured tree” in Greek), some were named from their native name, such as Ginkgo (from the Japanese or Chinese).
But more often than not the taxonomist (classifier) would choose to name a plant after a friend or patron. It was bad form to name a plant after yourself so only rarely does a plant end up with the name of its “discoverer”.
Usually you just take the surname of the person and add an -ia or sometimes just an -a. Although some tweaks are necessary – McMahon gave his name to Mahonia not McMahonia…
The greatest plant namer was Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), whose surname is itself a Latin word, meaning linden tree. His father Nils had taken this permanent surname on going to university and Carl (sometimes called Carolus) used it as well, instead of the more traditional patronymic (he should have been Carl Nilsson, “son of Nils”). Admittedly he changed his name again, to Carl von Linne, when he became a Swedish nobleman and went all posh.
He laid the foundations of modern taxonomy, which relies so heavily on the concept of “binomial” names – every organism should have a genus name followed by a specific, species name. I am concentrating here on the first part of those names, or we’ll be here all day.
Funnily enough, the emblem of Linnaeus’s province of Smaland in Sweden is named after him – Linnaea, the twin-flower. He cheekily named it after himself in his youth but then when the time came to put it in writing he changed his mind. It was later given this official name by his teacher Gronovius and Linnaeus accepted the honour because the flower was “lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering but for a brief time”, like himself.
Many of the Latin names for plants introduced into Europe from elsewhere have also now become their common names, as in the West we didn’t already have a name to call them by. For example, we don’t use any commoner name for Camellia, Forsythia, Magnolia and Dahlia. Although I admit we call Buddleia the butterfly tree and Kniphofia the red-hot poker…
Here are just some of my favourite garden plants named after people. I have tried several different ways of organising them, by country or date or discoverer or namer, but in the end plumped for simple alphabetical order…
This Peruvian lily genus was named by Linnaeus after his friend, the Swedish baron Clas Alströmer (Claus von Alstroemer 1736 – 1794). The plant’s seeds were among many collected by Alströmer on a trip to South America in 1753.
Not a common plant, but named after a great man – the Banksia genus was first described and named by Linnaeus’s son, Carl Linnaeus the Younger. The genus name honours English botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who collected the first Banksia specimens from Australia in 1770, during James Cook’s first expedition.
The Genus name was coined by Charles Plumier (1646 – 1704), a French botanist who made three botanizing expeditions to the West Indies. It honours Michel Bégon (1638-1710), a former governor of the French colony of Haiti and the name was adopted by Linnaeus.
Buddleia was named after Adam Buddle (1662–1715), an English cleric and botanist. Linnaeus spelled it “Buddleja” and this spelling is now the “official” name, even though it’s not very good Latin. Buddle was long dead by the time Linnaeus named the plant after him.
Buddleia is found in all continents apart from Europe and Australasia but the common Buddleia davidii found in British gardens and wild on building sites and chimney pots came from China. Note the “davidii” part of the name comes from Armand David (see below under Davidia)…
This genus of plants from South East Asia, which includes the tea plant, was named by Linnaeus after the Jesuit botanist Georg Joseph Kamel (1661-1706) from Brno, who worked in the Philippines, though he never described a Camellia.
The Camellia flower is surely the queen of the mid-winter garden in Britain.
The Dahlia is named after Swedish botanist Anders Dahl (1751-1789), a student of Linnaeus. Seeds sent from the botanic garden of Mexico City flowered for the first time in Madrid’s botanic garden in October 1789, and were named Dahlia coccinea by garden head Antonio José Cavanilles in 1791.
In Germany the dahlia was known during most of the 19th century as Georgia, being named after the naturalist Johann Gottlieb Georgi of St Petersburg, Russia.
Although it was David who first described the tree, his specimens were lost in a shipwreck. Eventually plant collector Ernest Henry Wilson found the tree again and managed to save his Davidia specimens when his ship was also wrecked. Dangerous job, being a plant hunter!
Escallonia is an evergreen South American shrub with small pink or white flowers. Spanish botanist Jóse Celastino Mutís named it in 1821 after his good friend Antonio Escallón y Flórez, a botanical associate in what is now Columbia.
Forsythia is named after Scottish botanist William Forsyth (1737-1804), one of the founders of the Royal Horticultural Society.
He was also an ancestor of popular British entertainer Bruce Forsyth, recently knighted, whose family tree was featured on Who Do You Think You Are?
Forsythia was named by Martin Vahl – a student of Linnaeus – but the plant itself was brought back to Britain from China by plant hunter Robert Fortune in the mid 19th century.
The Freesia is an African flower named after a German physician called Friedrich Heinrich Theodor Freese (1795–1876). It was named by Friedrich Wilhelm Klatt (1825-1897), a German botanist who specialised in the study of African plants.
The first Fuchsia (F. triphylla), was discovered on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1703 by the French monk and botanist, Charles Plumier (1646-1704). He named the new genus after the renowned German botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566)
The Gardenia was named after Dr Alexander Garden (1730-1791), a Scottish-born American naturalist who sent plant specimens such as Magnolias from his home in Carolina to Linnaeus and to the London naturalist and merchant John Ellis (1710-1776).
Ellis had to persuade Linnaeus to name a plant after Garden and in the end his name went to a plant which had nothing at all to do with Garden’s botanical efforts. Gardenia was also known as Cape jasmine, from South Africa.
While the Camellia is related to the tea plant, the Gardenia is related to the coffee plant. Various Gardenias are found all over tropical and subtropical Africa, Southern Asia, Australasia and the South Pacific.
Garrya, the “silk tassel tree”, is named after Nicholas Garry (1781-1856) of the Hudson Bay Company, a friend of the plant collector David Douglas, who introduced Garrya from North America to Europe in 1827.
This plant was “discovered” by Europeans in the 1880s, in South Africa. The lovely Gerbera was named after a friend of Linnaeus – the German botanist and naturalist Traugott Gerber (1710-1743) who travelled extensively in Russia. By the way, in theory it should be pronounced with a hard G (like “get”).
This South American plant with the appearance of “giant rhubarb” was named by Linnaeus after Johan Ernst Gunnerus (1718 –1773), a Norwegian bishop and botanist.
This North American plant, sometimes called “alumroot” or “coral bells”, was named by Linnaeus after Johann Heinrich von Heucher (1677–1746), an 18th century German physician and botanist, professor of medicine at Wittenburg University.
This is a plant that IS more often called by a common name – and a brilliant one – the “red-hot poker”. We had these in my garden when I was a child, but little did I know then that they weren’t a natural part of a British country garden and were introduced from Africa.
The Kniphofia genus is named after Johann Hieronymus Kniphof, an 18th century German physician and botanist. It was named by Conrad Moench (1744–1805) a German botanist, sometimes written Konrad Mönch.
There are more than 200 Magnolia species in the world, mostly native to east and southeast Asia, but with some in eastern North America, Central America, the West Indies and South America.
The Magnolia was named by Linnaeus after French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715).
Magnolias are ancient. They evolved before bees, so the flowers are designed for pollination by beetles. Like tulips, Magnolias lack separate sepals and petals. Instead they have perianth segments or “tepals”.
Fossil Magnolias have been found from 20 million years ago and early relatives of Magnolias from 95 million years ago.
McMahon was steward for the materials collected by the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), which explored across North America all the way across to the Pacific coast.
Another name for the original Mahonia aquifolium is “Oregon grape”.
My very first blog post was about Mahonia x Media Charity…
The tobacco-plant genus Nicotiana (and the chemical nicotine) was named by Linnaeus after Jean Nicot (1530-1600), French ambassador to Portugal who, in 1559, was the first to send tobacco as medicine to the French royal court, where queen mother Catherine de’ Medici became a convert.
Nicotiana is native to areas of North and South America, Australia, South West Africa and the South Pacific. It is a member of that wonderful (and often toxic) Solanaceae family, along with tomatoes, potatoes and deadly nightshade…
Read more about the history of tobacco here.
This American tree is named after the French royal gardeners Jean Robin (1550-1629) and his son Vespasian Robin (1579-1662), who introduced the plant to Europe in 1601.
Its common names are “false acacia” and “black locust”. I have a soft spot for it as I pass one every day but have only just identified it. It flowered this year in April and early May.
This name was given by Linnaeus in honour of his teacher at Uppsala University, Professor Olof Rudbeck the Younger (1660-1740), and his father, Professor Olof Rudbeck the Elder (1630-1702), both of whom were botanists.
The Rudbeckia, sometimes called “coneflower” or “black-eyed susan”, comes from North America.
This succulent which grows on trees in Brazil was first introduced to Europe by the Kew collector Allan Cunningham (1791-1839) in about 1816.
In 1858 Charles Antoine Lemaire (1801-1871) named it after Frédéric Schlumberger (1823-1893), a French collector of cacti and other succulents, living at Chateau des Authieux near Rouen.
I have blogged on the Schlumbergera or Christmas cactus here.
Tradescantia’s native soil stretches from southern Canada to northern Argentina. There are more than 70 species and some are commonly known as “wandering jew” or (more politically correctly) “wandering sailor” and grown as house plants in Britain – such as T. albiflora, T. fluminensis, T. pallida and T. zebrina.
Another common name for Tradescantia is apparently “spiderwort”, but I refuse to use this name as it might be confused with that other house plant perennial, the “spider plant” (Latin name Chlorophytum)…
A lovely plant, this, a group of woody vines of the pea family, coming from the Eastern United States of America, China, Japan and Korea.
He said the changed spelling was for “euphony” but there has been speculation that it was also a nod to a Philadelphia friend called Wister.
This beautiful plant, elegant in a very modern way, comes from southern Africa.
When I was a child the white ones, Z. aethiopica, associated with funerals, were called “Arum lilies”, while today these are usually called “Calla lilies”. They are technically neither arums/callas nor lilies.
The Zinnia is native to the scrub and dry grassland of the American Southwest and South America, but its heartland is Mexico. It was named by Linnaeus after the German botanist and anatomist Johann Gottfried Zinn (1727–1759).
Well that’s about it for now and we’ve hardly scratched the surface of plants named after people. You can also put someone’s name in the second, “species” part of the binomial name, as with the Buddleia davidii (mentioned above) named after plant hunter Armand David.
It is in this second name that plant hunters often receive their due credit. For example one plant hunter honoured in maybe a dozen species names is the Scot Robert Fortune (1812-1880), who introduced tea plants from China to India.
His name is seen in plant names such as Hosta fortunei, Mahonia fortunei, Rhododendron fortunei and Rosa fortuniana…
I hope we will now try to remember all these people as we walk around the garden. But back to the original question – who would YOU name a plant after, if you had the chance?