Latin botanical names do not only point to the taxon, but also often contain certain information about a plant. Such names are called informative.
Informative names of plants can be divided into the row of groups:
1) names which specify on the morphological signs of plants:
a) form: Panicum ovatum – Oval millet, Linum tenuifolium – Thin-leafed flax, Triticum sphaerococcum – Roundseeded wheat;
b) size plant or his separate parts: Agrostis gigantea – Giant panicle, Achillea micrantha – Flowered milfoil;
c) color: Lupinus luteus – Yellow lupin, Trifolium aureum – Goldish clover Phaseolus coccineus – Bright red bean;
2) names which specify to the taste or smell of plant: Rumex acetosa – Sour sorrel, Anethum graveolens – Fragrant dill;
3) names which specify on external likeness: Euphorbia salicifolia – Willow-leafed spurge, Gossypium herbaceum – Cotton grassy plant;
4) names which specify on the ecological environment of distribution: Pisum arvense – Field pea, Lathyrus pratensis – China meddow, Secale silvestre – Forest rye;
5) names which represent geographical distribution or motherland of plant:
Triticum polonicum – Polish Wheat, Fagopyrum tataricum – Tatar Buckwheat;
6) names which specify in a time of appearance of plant: Primula veris – Spring Primrose, Triticum aestivum – Summer Wheat, Convallaria maialis – Ordinary Lily (May);
8) names which specify on the practical value of plants: Fagopyrum esculentum – Edible Buckwheat, Anisantha tectorum – Roof Anizanta, Genista tinctoria – Dying Genista.
Sometimes the meaning of the Latin name of the plant we can find out just turning to its etymology. Consider some of them.
Allium caepa – Bulb onion. Allium is an ancient Latin name of garlic (onion and garlic belongs to the same family). The noun allium is derived from the Celtic adjective all “burning”. Garlic has a hot spicy flavor. Probably, there is a relation with the Latin word halare “to blaze up” (halium → alium), since the plant has a strong typical smell. The noun caepa “onion”, which is derived from the Celtic word cap “head” (onion has a rounded shape) is used as epithet.
Achillea millefolium – Milfoil. The noun achillea is derived from the name Achilles, the Greek mythological hero and the follower of the Centaur Chiron. According to the legend, Achilles was the first who used yarrow for the healing of wounds. The noun millefolium is derived from Latin mille “a thousand” and folium “a leaf”, which point at the greatly divided leaves of this plant.
Alnus glutinosa – European alder. The noun alnus “an alder” derives from the Celtic words: al “at” and lan “coast” (al + lan + us). Such name a plant has received because it often grows on coasts of rivers and lakes, on wood bogs. The epithet glutinosa (from Latin gluten “glue”) specifies that young foliage of this kind of an alder is very sticky.
Armeniaca vulgaris – Common apricot. The noun arneniaca “an apricot” is derived from an adjective armeniacus, a, um “armenian”, as fruits of this tree got to Rome from Armenia. Pliney named fruits of an apricot as “the Armenian plum”.
Artemisia absinthium – Absinthium. The name artemisia is probably related with the name of the Greek goddess Artemis. Pliney considers that this plant is named in honour of Artemisia the wife of king Mausolus, who has recovered by means of this grass. Also it is possible, that the name comes from the Greek word artemes “healthy” as the wormwood is healthfulness. The noun absinthium is derived from the Greek word apsinthos (a- “not” +psinthos “delight”), as the plant has a bitter, astringent flavor.
Atropa belladonna – Deadly. Carl Linnaeus named genus Atropa in honor of one of the Greek mythology parkas Atropos, who cut a thread of a human life (the most part of this plants are poisonous). The noun belladonna is derived from the Italian words: bella “beautiful” and donna “a woman”. In old times woman used the juice of this plant as cosmetic means: they dug it in their eyes and rubbed with it cheeks.
Bidens tripartita – Bur beggar ticks. The noun bidens “beggar-ticks” is derived from Latin bis “twice, two-” and dens “a tooth”: fruits of this plant have two gear edges. The epithet tripartitus “three-parted” (from Latin tri-“three-” and pars, partis f “part”) specifies the structure of a leaf.
Brassica oleracea – White cabbage. Ancient Latin name of the plant brassica is derived from Celtic bresic “cabbage”. Probably there is a relation with the Greek word braxein “to cook”: a cabbage was rather wide spread vegetable crop in ancient Rome, from cabbage people prepared a great number of dishes. The adjective oleraceus, a, um is derived from Latin olus, eris n “vegetable, greens”.
Cannabis sativa – Cannabis. The noun cannabis is Latinized variant of the Greek word kannabis, which is derived from two words: Sanskrit cana “pipe” (hollow stalk of plant is like a pipe by form) and Syrian bis (pis) “hemp”. Adjective sativus, a, um “sowing” is derived from the supine satum of the verb serere “to sow”.
Capsella bursa-pastoris – Blindweed. The name of capsella is translated as “box” (diminutive from capsa “a box, a chest, a case”). Compound epithet bursa-pastoris is translated as “the shepherd’s bag”, as the triangular form of fruits of the plant is look like a feed bag of the shepherd.
Capsicum annuum – Red pepper. The noun capsicum is probably derived from Latin capsa “a box, a case”: fruits of pepper look like a box, in which there are seeds. Under other version capsicum is derived from the Greek verb kapto “to bite, to burn”: pepper has hot and spicy taste. The epithet annuum (from Latin annus “year”) specifies that the plant finishes its vital rhythm for a year.
Chelidonium majus – Greater celandine. The name chelidonium is derived from Greek chelidon “swallow”. On supervision of ancient Greeks the plant appears when swallows arrive and die off when they depart to warm sides. There is one more mythological explanation of this name: it is said that when a nestling of a swallow lose its vision, mother brings this grass in a beak and cures it.
Convallaria maialis – Lily of the valley. The noun convallaria “lily of the valley” is derived from Latin convallis “valley” and Greek lerion “lily”, thereby convallaria is literally translated as a “lily of a valley“ as its flowers remind flowers of the lily and the plant grows in lowlands. The epithet maialis denotes the period of a plant blossoming.
Crataegus ucrainica – Hawthorn. The noun crataegus “haw” is derived from Greek kratos “strength”, as the plant has very strong and sharp prickles. The epithet ucrainicus, a, um denotes the geographical spreading of the plants.
Cucurbita pepo – Pumpkin. The noun cucurbita is derived from Latin cucumis, eris n “cucumber” and orbitus, a, um “round”, and is literally translated as “round cucumber” (pumpkin and cucumber belong to the same family).
Equisetum silvaticum – Sylvan horsetail. The noun equisetum “horsetail” is derived from Latin equus “horse” and seta “bristle or coarse hair”. Pliney gave such name to a plant, as thin needles of a horsetail remind a tail of a horse. The epithet silvaticus, a, um “forestry” (from Latin silva “forest”) denotes the place where this kind of horsetails grow.
Fagopyrum esculentum – Buckwheat. The name fagopyrum is derived from two words: Latin fagus “beech” and Greek “wheat” and is literally translated as “beech wheat”. People mill flour from both buckwheat and wheat, and trihedral fruits of the plant, recall the beechnuts in shape. The adjective esculentus, a, um is derived from Latin esca “food, forage”.
Fragaria vesca – European strawberry. The noun fragaria “strawberries” is derived from ancient Latin name of this plant fraga, which in turn is related to the verb fragare “to smell good”, as its barriers smell nice. The epithet vescus, a, um “small” denotes the size of barriers.
Gossypium herbaceum – Cotton-plant. The noun gossypium is derived from the Arabian name of a cotton goza and an adjective herbaceus, a, um – from Latin herba “grass”: unlike Gossypium arboreum (Asiatic tree cotton),Gossypium herbaceum has a caulis.
Helichrysum arenarium – Yellow everlasting. The noun helichrysum “everlasting” is derived from Greek helios “sun” and chrysos “gold” as its flowers are gold yellow. An adjective arenarius, a, um “sand, sandy” (from Latinarena, ae f “sand”) denotes the place where the plant grows.
Humulus lupulus – Hop. Origin of a noun humulus “hop” is related with a noun humus “ground, soil” or an adjective humilis “low”, as the plant frequently creeps the ground. A noun lupulus is derived from Latin lupus “wolf”. Such name is connected with the hop twisting round other plants and stifles them as if the wolf stifles its prey.
Hyoscyamus niger – Black henbane. The name hyoscyamus is a Latinized variant of the Greek name hyoskyamos which is derived from two words: hyos “pig” and kyamos “bean”. Dioskrides who noticed, that pigs, which ate fruits of a henbane died, called this plant “a pig’s bean”. The epithet niger “black” denotes the dark violet coloration of a pith of a flower.
Iuglans regia – Circassian walnut. The noun iuglans, ndis f “walnut” is derived from Latin Iu (shortening from Iuppiter “Jove”) and glans, glandis f “acorn”, also means: “the fruit devoted to the Jove which looks like acorn”. The adjective regius, a, um “kingly, royal” is derived from Latin rex, regis m “king”: a walnut is a high, powerful tree with a branchy crown.
Iuniperus communis – Common juniper. Some researchers consider, that the name іuniperus is derived from the Celtic adjective ieneperus “spiny, prickly”, as acerose leaves of a juniper are rather spiny. Others consider, that this name is derived from Latin iuvenis “young” and parere “to give birth” (a juniper is an evergreen plant on which the spines are constantly renewed).
Ledum palustre – Labrador tea. The noun ledum “labrador tea”, probably, connected with a verb laedere “to harm”, as the strong smell of the plant causes giddiness. The adjective paluster, stris, stre is derived from Latinpalus, udis f “bog” and denotes the place of the plants growing.
Leonurus quinquelobatus – Quinquelobate motherwort. The name leonurus is derived from Latin leo, leonis m “lion” and Greek ura “tail” as the inflorescence of the plant reminds a lion’s tail. The adjective quinquelobatus“quinquelobate” denotes the form of a leaf.
Linum usitatissimum – Linseed. The noun linum is a Latinized variant of Greek linon, which is derived from Celtic lin “thread”: from the stalks of the linseed people produced threads. The adjective usitatissimum “the most common” (from usitatus, a, um “common”) is used as epithet.
Oryza sativa – Rice. The name оryza was given to the plant by known Greek scientist Theophrastos, who possesses the first attempt of classification of plants. The adjective sativus, a, um “sowing” is derived from the form supine satum of a verb serere “to sow”.
Oxycoccus quadripetalus – Small cranberry. The name оxycoccus is derived from Greek oxys “sour” and kokkos “grain” and connected with to sour taste and the spherical form of berries of a cranberry. An adjectivequadripetalus (from Latin quadri- “four” and petalum “petal”) denotes a structure of a flower.
Padus racemosa – Bird cherry. The noun рadus “bird cherry” comes from the Latin name of a small river Po in the Northern Italy. An adjective racemosus, a, um “with a racemation, like a racemation” from Latin racemus“racemation” denotes the type of an inflorescence of the plant.
Panicum miliaceum – Hog millet. The noun рanicum is probably connected with Latin panis, is m “bread”. The adjective miliaceus, a, um “millet” which comes from Latin milium “millet” is used as epithet.
Plantago major – Dooryard plantain. The name рlantago comes from Latin planta “footstep, plant” and agere “to follow after”. Some kinds of a plantain (including P. major) remind a person’s footstep. Besides, the plantain as if accompanies a person – it grows by the roads and paths.
Quercus robur – Common oak. The name quercus is already found in Cicero’s and other ancient authors works. It is probably derived from Greek kerkein “rough” (according to the appearance and properties of the bark of an oak). The epithet is also expressed in the noun robur, oris n “oak”.
Ribes nigrum – Blackberry. Ribes – is a Latinized variant of the Arabian name of one of the kinds of a rhubard which grows in Palestine and tastes sour. When Arabs conquered Spain, they transferred the name ribes on gooseberry, which had the same sour taste. Later this name was transferred on the currant either (the gooseberry and the currant belongs to the same family). The epithet nigrum “black” denotes the colour of the berries.
Rosa canina – Dog rose. The noun rosa, ae f is derived from ancient Greek rhodon “a rose, a dog rose”, which in turn is connected with Celtic adjective rhodd “red” (by the colour of the plant’s flowers). The epithet caninus, a, um “dog” (from Latin canis “dog”) is given to a plant because this kind of a dog rose is rather poor on vitamins.
Rumex confertus – Horse dock. Rumex is an old name of a horse dock, which is probably connected with Latin rumex, icis m “a juvelin, an archegay with a short pole”: due to the sharp form of the foliage of the plant. Сonfertus“dense, collected” (from Latin con-fercio, fertum, īre “to concentrate, to collect in one place”) is used as epithet, that denotes dense inflorescences of a horse dock.
Solanum tuberosum – Potato. Literally the Latin name of potato is translated as “bulbous bane”. The name of a species solanum is derived from Latin solamen “pleasure, facilitation” because of narcotic action of the majority of kinds of bane. Adjective tuberosus, a, um is formed from tuber, eris n “bulb”.
Sorbus aucuparia – Wiggen. Some researchers connect the name sorbus “wiggen” whith Celtic adjective sor “tart” (through taste of berries). Others consider, that it is derived from Latin verb sorbere “to absorb, to soak up, to swallow”, as fruits of the majority of kinds of a wiggen are eatable. The adjective aucuparius, a, um is derived from Latin aucupari “to catch birds” (fruits of a wiggen attract birds).
Triticum vulgare – Common wheat. The old Latin name of the plant triticum is derived from past participle tritus, a, um “floured, ground”, formed from a verb terere “to ground”: from ancient times people used to grind flour from the wheat grain.
Viburnum opulus – European dogwood. The noun viburnum “dogwood” is derived from Latin viere “to plash, to creep”: from young flexible branches of the plant people used to plash baskets. The noun opulus is the old Latin name of a maple (foliage of European dogwood reminds foliage of a maple).
Zea mays – Maize. The noun zea is derived from Greek zea “bread, wheat”. C. Linney shifted this name on corn as it, as well as wheat is of great nutrition value. The moun mays is derived from Mexican mahiz “corn, maize”.
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