Flower names

Early Botanists

It wasn't so long ago that people started to try to list all the plants growing in Britain. In fact Britain was where the lists of plants were first made and early botanists would go on expeditions to try to find new plants. One of the early botanists was a man called William Turner found a plant in 1548 which "groweth in ye corn" and called it Corn Chervil.

We now call it Shepherd's Needle after the long pointed seeds but it has other name such as: Beggar's needle, Clock needle, Crake Needle, Crow Needle, Crow Peck's, Deil's darning-needle, Elshins, Hedgehogs, Lady's comb, Needle Points, Long Beaks and many others.

Common names

Local people called the wild flowers different names in different parts of the country which is a bit confusing. The very common plants and those used as medicines had many names.

The ordinary Bluebell which is Britain's favourite flower, has a huge number of alternative names such as:

Bluebell, Crawtraes, Wild Hyacinth, Blue Bonnets, Blue Bottle, Blue Goggles, Blue Granfer Greygles, Blue Rocket, Blue Trumpet, Bummack, Bummuck, Crakefeet, Crawfeet, Cross flower, Crow-bells, Crow-Flower, Crowfoot, Crow picker, Crows Legs, Crowtoes, Cuckoo, Cuckoo Flower, Cuckoo's Boots, Cuckoo's Stockings, Culvers, Culverkeys, Fairy Bells, Goosey Gander, Gowk's Hose, Granfer Gregors, Grammar Greygles, Granfer Griddlesticks, Greygles, Harebell, Pride of the Wood Ring O'Bells, Rooks Flower, Single Gussies, Snake's flower, Snapgrass and Wood Bells!

These days we just call them Bluebells but in Scotland a Bluebell is different plant which in England is called a Harebell. Somebody needed to create a naming system which everybody could use whatever country they lived in.

The Linnean system of naming Plants

The systematic naming of plants was started by a Swedish man called Carl Linnaeus who invented a way of classifying plants according to how the flower parts were arranged.

In those days scientists would write their reports in Latin so naturally Carl Linnaeus chose a naming system which was based on Latin. The Latin names he gave to plants had two parts. The first word was called the Genus. For instance Speedwells were called Veronica for the first name and after that followed another name to make it different from any other Speedwell. That second or species word might describe where it was found or its shape or something like that:

Veronica agrestis for instance is Green Field Speedwell

Veronica hederifolia is Ivy-leaved Speedwell (hederifolia means leaves like Ivy)

So all proper speedwell flowers begin with Veronica and have a second name which is unique. This double naming method is known as the binomial system and we use it today. We can name any plant with this system including a plant which has only just been discovered.

Here are some of the Latin species names which describe where a plant grows (its habitat):

Latin English meaning
agrostis or agrestis in fields
aquatica in watery places
arvensis/arvense in arable fields
campestris/campestre in grazed/mowed fields
littoralis/littorale in a place often covered by the sea
maritimus/maritima by the sea (broadly speaking)
muralis/murale on walls
palustris/paludosa in marshy places
riparia/rivularis in rivers/streams
ruderalis in waste places
rupestris/rupicola on rocks
stagnalis in pools/ponds
sylvestris in woods
uliginosus/uliginosa also means in marshy places

Other Latin species names give us some idea of the shape of the plant or describe the plant in some way:

Latin English meaning
acutus/acuta sharp-pointed
annuus/annua annual, living one year
auriculatus/auriculata eared
biennis biennial, living two years
caespitosus tufted
campanulus/campanulata bell-shaped
capillaris hair-shaped
compressus/compressa flattened lengthwise
cordatus/cordata heart-shaped
crispus/crispa curled
cristatus/cristata crested
dentatus/dentata toothlike
diffusus spreading widely
lanatus/lanata woolly
lanceolatus/lanceolata narrowly elliptical
nanus/pumilus/pygmaeus dwarf
natans floating underwater
nutans nodding
obtusus/obtusa blunt
officinalis used in medicine
ovalis oval
perennis perennial, living many years
pilosus/pubescens/villosus/hispidus Some kind of hairiness
plicata folded lengthwise
punctatus/punctata dotted
pyramidalis/conicus/conica cone-shaped
ramosus/ramosa branched
sagittatus/sagittata arrow-shaped
serratus/serrata sawlike
spinosus/spinosa spiny
spiralis spiral-shaped
stellatus/stellata star-shaped
trigonous three-cornered

But it isn't always so systematic. Some species names (second Latin name) are just translations in Latin of the old English name. So the water plant Frog-bit is called Hydrocharis morsus-ranae and morsus-ranae means "bite of the frog".

Shall we use Latin or English??

When we write officially about plants we always use the Latin names but this isn't as straightforward as it sounds. Although Carl Linnaeus started the naming system, professional scientists have other methods of finding out which genus (first name) a plant belongs to. If they find that a plant has been classified incorrectly they change the name.

For instance the good old English bluebell has been changed from Endymion non-scriptus, to Hyacinthoides non-scriptus and is now called Hyacinthoides non scripta. Sometimes scientists even change a name then a few years later change it back again! This means that we need a book or reference to check names. In the Wild Flower Society we tends to use a complete list of plants by Dandy or "The New Flora of the British Isles" by Professor Clive Stace. Professor Stace has produced four editions of his book because the names of plants keep changing. The latest is his fourth edition published in 2019.

So does anybody use English names? Yes they do. Particularly when on field trips you'll hear people saying things like:

"What's Latin for Cow Parsley?"

A few people have never tried to learn the Latin names but they always find it difficult if the same English name applies to a number of different plants. For instance the little Eyebright was thought to be just one plant but now we know that there are many different "Eyebrights".

Euphrasia confusa is called Eyebright in English.

Euphrasia macrantha is also called Eyebright so how would you know which was which? In fact there are over thirty different plants in the Euphrasia genus which are all called "Eyebright" in English. So it is best to try to learn the Latin names of plants.

Finally not everybody calls the Latin names "Latin names"! Some call them "Systematic names", some say "Binomial names" and some use "Scientific names". Does it matter?

Not as long as everyone knows what you're talking about.

How do you say the Latin names?

No-one really knows because Latin was spoken regularly hundreds of years ago by the Romans.

Since then it has been used in Church services and some official ceremonies but there isn't too much agreement about pronunciation. During a Wild Flower Society meeting you'll hear the same name being spoken many different ways.

Some Latin plant names are almost unpronounceable when you first try to say them. Until recently False Sedge was called Kobresia simpliciuscula and I've never heard that one pronounced without stuttering.

There is also a little plant called Mind-your-own-business in English and in Latin is Soleirolia soleirolii. Try saying the Latin name. The trouble is the English name isn't too much help either.

Imagine being asked what the name of this plant is. You'll either have to try the unpronounceable Latin name or say "Mind-your-own-business" or do what I do and say "I don't know, ask the leader".


I find the Latin names hard to learn

Quite honestly anyone who says that they found the Latin names easy to learn when they started to look for wild flowers is a bit of a fibber.

They aren't easy to pronounce or remember but because they are the names used by people in so many different countries, they are worth getting to know.

This is where our diaries help. You might know the name of a flower like Daisy, Dandelion or Nettle but you can only fill in your diary if you look up the correct Latin name. The diary is in alphabetical order of Latin name. Gradually you get used to it and you learn more and more Latin names with each season. It takes time. Nobody learns them quickly.

updated May 19th 2020, 1st June 2020