What’s in a Name? Form and Function

– Posted in: Miscellaneous
Linum perenne ‘Sapphire’
Linum perenne ‘Sapphire’

Ages ago, I started the What’s in a Name series with an intro post (Part the First) and several color-themed posts: Through the Rainbow I, Through the Rainbow II, and White, Black, and Shades of Gray. I recently ran across the file I’d been keeping of interesting botanical names and realized that there’s plenty of great material left to explore. Granted, much nomenclature stuff clearly strays into the geek zone. It’s  unlikely that you’ll ever need to know that the specific epithet amblyodon – as in Gaillardia amblyodon (maroon blanketflower) means blunt-toothed, or that skirrhobasis – as in Aphanostephus skirrhobasis (Arkansas lazy daisy) – means hard-based. But there are many other prefixes, suffixes, and epithets that can be more useful to know: in this case, if you’re looking for plants with certain form- and habit-related traits.

Herbaceous or Woody?

It’s easy to guess that a plant with annuus (or annua or annuum) in its name would probably behave like an annual in the garden. And it’s no stretch to figure out that common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) acts like a biennial, or that Linum perenne and Arabis perennans are perennials.

Helianthus annuus
Helianthus annuus

Unfortunately, knowing these basics doesn’t always give you the right answer. Peppers, for example, are Capsicum annuum, but the plants can be perennial if not exposed to frost. Lunaria annua (money plant or honesty) usually behaves like a biennial, making leafy clumps the first year and then flowering, setting seed, and dying the second year. And then there’s Bellis perennis (English daisy), which is perennial but often grown as an annual or biennial, depending on where you live. Some of these quirks are just part of the fun of nomenclature.

Capsicum annuum 'Fish'
Capsicum annuum ‘Fish’

Scientific names that indicate bulb-producing plants are fairly obvious: bulbiferus, bulbifera, and bulbiferum for bulb-producing plants, and tuberosus, tuberosa, and tuberosum for those with tubers or tuberous roots. Bulbosus, bulbosa, and bulbosum sound like they’d refer to bulbs, but they more often mean “bulb-like,” as in the bulb-like bases of variegated bulbous oat grass (Arrhenatherum elatius var. bulbosum ‘Variegatum’).

Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’
Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’

As a group, annuals, biennials, bulbs, and most traditional garden perennials are herbaceous, which means that they don’t produce woody stems – a characteristic typically indicated by the epithet herbaceus (or herbacea or herbaceum). Knowing that, it’s easy to guess that herbeohybrida – as in Calceolaria herbeohybrida (pocketbook plant) – refers to a hybrid between herbaceous species.

Gossypium herbaceum ‘Nigrum’
Gossypium herbaceum ‘Nigrum’

For plants that have woody stems and/or a tree-like habit, there’s arboreus (and arborea and arboreum). There’s also arborescens (as in Hydrangea arborescens) for “becoming tree-like.”

Hydrangea arborescens
Hydrangea arborescens

Epithets related to shrubs include variations on the prefix fruti-, such as fruticosus, fruticosa, and fruticosum for shrubby; fruticans for becoming shrubby; frutescens for being shrub-like; and suffruticosus (-a, –um) for somewhat shrubby.

Vining and Climbing

The prefix that refers to a vine is simply vit-, as in viticella (small vine) and vitalba (white vine): think of Clematis viticella and Clematis vitalba. Other epithets generally related to vines include scandens (climbing) and volubilis or volubile (twining), as in Celastrus scandens (American bittersweet), cathedral bells (Cobaea scandens), and Aconitum volubile (a climbing monkshood).

Toxicodendron radicans
Toxicodendron radicans

The epithet radicans – stems that produce roots — isn’t specifically related to vines, but it appears in the names of several vines that produce aerial roots: among them, Toxicodendron radicans (poison ivy) and trumpetcreeper (Campsis radicans).

Standing, Sprawling, and Creeping

If you prefer plants that aren’t likely to need staking, look for names that include strictus (-a, –um) or rigidus (-a, –um), as in Penstemon strictus (stiff beardtongue or Rocky mountain penstemon) or Verbena rigida (stiff verbena). For long, straight shoots, there’s virgatus (-a, –um), as in Panicum virgatum (switch grass) and Penstemon virgatus (upright blue beardtongue).

Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’
Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’

The epithets erectus (-a, –um) and rectus (-a, –um) mean straight or upright, and they’re appropriate in the case of Potentilla recta (upright cinquefoil) and Haloragis erecta (upright seaberry), for example.

Haloragis erecta ‘Wellington Bronze’
Haloragis erecta ‘Wellington Bronze’

On the other hand, if you’ve ever grown Clematis recta (optimistically called upright clematis), you know that suberecta would be more appropriate, as it’s not really all that upright. Other epithets that can clue you in to weak stems or a sprawling growth habit include debilis, debile, and supinus (-a, –um) .

Looking for plants that might make good groundcovers? Check their names for epithets such as diffusus (-a, –um) , humilis and humile, procumbens, and prostratus (-a, –um). Some examples that come to mind here include Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis (sweet box), Pachysandra procumbens (Alleghany pachysandra), and Veronica prostrata (prostrate speedwell).

Asarina procumbens
Asarina procumbens

A few more cues to low-growers: acaulis or acaule, meaning “without a stem”; caespitosus (-a, –um), for a dense, tufted habit; and compactus (-a, –um)…well, I don’t need to explain that one!

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Janet November 19, 2010, 9:06 am

What a great posting, I learned something that I hope will stay with me. I still get confused with the endings of the word–virginiana or virgincus/ coccinea or coccineus….lots more to learn.

Thanks, Janet. As a general rule, the ending of the epithet matches the gender of the genus (Ipomoea coccinea, for instance, but Quercus coccineus), though there are also a number of exceptions – of course.
-Nan

Mr. McGregor's Daughter November 19, 2010, 11:47 am

I’m reveling in geekdom. Thanks for another great post.

I can always count on you to appreciate geekiness (and Monty Python too), MMD.
-Nan

Stevie November 19, 2010, 12:04 pm

Hey, now I know some latin! Thanks for this amazing post.

It’s fun finding out that those names have meaning, isn’t it? And this isn’t even a very exciting batch. I think the colors were most intriguing, but I have another good batch on another theme chosen for the next post.
-Nan

Eliza November 19, 2010, 1:12 pm

I think that’s the prettiest photo I’ve ever seen of ‘Fish’ peppers — which is saying something since they are a very photogenic vegetable. Really enjoyable post!

You’re so right, Eliza; it’s hard to resist taking pictures of ‘Fish’. I don’t often catch it with such an ideal progression of the ripening stages, though.
-Nan

Gail November 19, 2010, 9:52 pm

Two new plants (Gossypium herbaceum ‘Nigrum’ and Haloragis erecta ‘Wellington Bronze’) and my botanical knowledge has been reinforced! I couldn’t ask for a better read! gail

Ah, the allure of the black-leaved cotton. It’s one of my favorite annuals, though it’s very tough to find seeds for; I usually have to depend on the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group‘s seed exchange. The bronze seaberry, which is also usually annual for me but normally self-sows lightly) is also challenging to find, but it’s currently listed in a few catalogs, including Chiltern as seed and Digging Dog as plants.
-Nan

Byddi Lee - We didn't come here for the grass... November 20, 2010, 1:44 pm

Wow this post has a wealth of useful information! I never really considered how plants got their Latin names, but there is some semblance to logic to it!

The logic isn’t always apparent, but knowing some of the meanings helps makes some sense of things.
-Nan

Debra Lee Baldwin November 20, 2010, 2:45 pm

Hi, Nan — Great post and wonderfully readable. Also, your photos are so lovely. My favorite is the one of the red autumn leaves. Just wanted to mention there’s a book on this topic that is user-friendly and not intimidatingly academic—“Gardener’s Latin” a lexicon by Bill Neal (Algonquin). It’s one of my most-referenced books.

Thanks, Debra. Reference books are always useful, if you know what you’re looking for.
-Nan