Friday, August 12, 2016

Be Specific

Today I will assume the challenge to make a botany lesson as enjoyable as possible.

Whoa, did I just hear a collective groan from the Flora Wonder readership? C'mon, I'll keep it simple and quick and show you a lot of pictures. I'll discuss species names, the (usually) Latin names that horticulture takes for granted, names that were bestowed from recent to 250 years ago by Linnaeus.

Pseudotsuga menziesii

Arthur Menzies

Sometimes a botanist is credited with a specific name, even though he may not be the one who discovered the plant. Take Pseudotsuga menziesii, the dominant conifer of western North America as an example. It was first discovered – by white men anyway – in 1792 by Archibald Menzies and in 1827 it was introduced to Europe by David Douglas. It was previously named P. taxifolia and P. douglasii, but later the scientific community settled on Frenchman Charles-Francois Brisseau de Mirbel's (1776-1854) P. menziesii. It is surprising that a French botanist would give due credit to the Scotsman Menzies, but perhaps within the Brotherhood of Botanists there is a close bond.

Wollemia nobilis

Another species named for a person is Wollemia nobilis. The generic name was chosen because the recent discovery of the “pine” occurred in the Wollemia Wilderness, just 150 km from Sydney, Australia in 1994. The specific name honors the discoverer David Noble – whose name I covet – and was given by three botanists, W.G. Jones, K.D. Hill and the lovely and brainy Jan Allen. Wollemi is an Aboriginal word meaning “look around you, keep your eyes open and watch out.”

Pinus bungeana

Alexander Bunge
The German botanists Joseph Gerhard Zuccarini (1797-1848) named Pinus bungeana to honor D. Alexander Bunge who first saw the species in a temple garden near Beijing in 1831. Bunge belonged to the German minority in Tsarist Russia, and he found the pine during a scientific expedition from Siberia to Beijing in 1826. Pinus bungeana used to be rare in the trade when I began my career, but I got ahold of some scionwood and propagated about twenty trees onto Pinus strobus rootstock. They grew fast and well and I had a row of the largest size around, and customers were just dying to buy them. I viewed them like a piggy bank, that when they were worth $500 apiece, then I would sell them. That winter we had a brutal ice storm and it ravaged my trees, a case where mother nature humbled my ass.

Pinus armandii
Armand David

Pinus armandii was named by the French botanist Adrien Rene Franchett (1834-1900), and it honors the French missionary Armand David (1826-1900), a Lazarist Catholic priest as well as a zoologist and botanist who sent many specimens back to Paris. David was the first to send the giant panda to Europe for example, but unfortunately it died quickly in captivity. I find it interesting that David's first name was used for Pinus armandii, while it was his last name that was used for Davidia involucrata.

Decaisnea fargesii
Pere Farges

There are scads more species that were named for people, such as Decaisnea fargesii that honors another missionary, Pere Farges. Besides, the generic name honors the botanist Joseph Decaisne (1807-1882).

Acer sieboldianum

Friedrich Miquel
Kusumoto Ine
Acer sieboldianum was named by the Dutch botanist Friedrich Anton Wilhelm Miquel (1811-1871) to honor Philipp von Siebold (1796-1866), another physician/botanist who toiled in Japan. While there Siebold dallied, naturally, with a woman named Kusumoto O' taki, and she bore him a beautiful daughter, Kusumoto Ine, who became the first female Japanese western physician and court doctor to the Japanese empress.

Acer nipponicum

A lot of species, of course, were named for their country of origin, even though many can also occur in more than one country. Acer nipponicum is from Japan, and the Japanese word nihonjin means “from Japan,” and that is how they refer to themselves. The word “nippon” or “nip” is considered derogatory. The name of Cipango is believed to have come from Marco Polo, although he referred to the island from Chinese soil and never set foot in Japan. Cipango would be Giappone in Italian or Japon in French. The epithet Acer nipponicum was coined by Japanese botanist Hiroshi Hara (1911-1986), although he was mainly famous for his classification of mosses.

Acer cappadocicum

Acer cappadocicum is native to Caucasus and western Asia, for Cappadocia was an ancient district of the upper Kizil Irmak River in modern Turkey.

Acer pensylvanicum

William Penn

Acer pensylvanicum's name was published by Linnaeus in 1753 because the maple can be found in Pennsylvania (as well as in many other states). Pennsylvania was named for William Penn, the Quaker Englishman with two “n',” to his name, but the Linnaeus spelling mistake lives on. The sylvania part originates from Latin silva meaning wood, woodland, forest, orchard or grove, and that from the Greek hyle for “forest.”

Eucryphia x nymansensis

Eucryphia x nymansensis is a hybrid of two South American species, E. cordifolia and E. glutinosa. The cross received its name because it was produced at Nymans, Sussex, by the Head Gardener to Col. L.C.R. Messel of Magnolia 'Leonard Messel' fame.

Acer campestre

Acer campestre's specific name means “of the fields or plains,” and it self-seeds from Russia to north Africa. It has been known for hundreds of years, and the name was coined by Linnaeus in 1753.

Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'

Cedrus atlantica hails from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria. The Flora Wonder readership is the exception, but very many people don't know that those two countries are located in northern Africa. 20 years ago I had just returned from the Himalaya and a fellow nurseryman was asking about my trip. So I told him a few stories, some of which were true, and he wistfully sighed and wished he could visit the Himalaya too, because he always wanted to see Morocco. Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca' is commonly used in the Northwest, often planted way too close to houses. They're skinny when young but watch out! I even witnessed a regionally-known landscape company, who have been in business for over 100 years, install a 'Glauca' as a street tree under the power lines.

Cedrus libani

Himalayan house made with Cedrus deodara.

Cedrus libani is from Lebanon and southwest Turkey, but sadly it is now scarce due to exploitation for centuries. The species is referred to Biblically as the “cedars of Lebanon” and are perhaps what Solomon used for building the Temple in Jerusalem. I have been inside Cedrus deodara houses in northern India, and the wood is wonderfully aromatic, so much so that you can smell them from 50' away.

Cornus florida
Ponce de Leon

Cornus florida can be found on the east coast of North America, from Maine to northern Florida, and as far west as the Mississippi River. It used to be classified as Benthamidia florida Spach, and even the Asian dogwood was Benthamidia kousa. The specific name florida is derived from flora, and the state of Florida was originally named Pascua Florida by explorer Ponce de Leon on Easter in 1513, and it translates to “Flowering Easter,” after Spain's “Feast of the Flowers.”

Alnus formosana

Corydalis formosa

Juniperus formosana

Leycesteria formosa
Lilium formosanum

Tricyrtis formosana

The island of Taiwan was formerly known as Formosa, so-named because an early Portuguese naval explorer thought it was “beautiful.”* There are quite a number of formosas in botany, such as Alnus formosana, Corydalis formosa, Juniperus formosana, Leycesteria formosa, Lilium formosanum and Tricyrtis formosana, to name a few that I have photos of.

*In Portuguese Formosa insula means “beautiful island,” and formosa is derived from Latin formosus for “beautiful, handsome or finely formed.” Hey, that would be a great surname: Talon Formosa.

Abies koreana

I guess I don't have to tell you what country Abies koreana is native to.

Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'

Ok, enough of place names, lets find some species named for color. Cornus sanguinea is one, though Linnaeus had it as Swida sanguinea. In any case it is the common dogwood of Europe. In the right place it can be attractive, such as C.s. 'Midwinter Fire' down by my pond, but the species is known to “travel” by sprouting from the roots. Even the straight species turns reddish in winter, hence the specific name, from Latin sanguis meaning “blood.” A sanguine person is “cheerful, hopeful and confident” because these qualities were thought in medieval times to spring from an excess of blood as one of the four humors.

Puya caerulea

Passiflora caerulea

Passiflora caerulea 'Constance Elliott'

Summer's Day by Berthe Morisot 

Alba in botany is white, while rubra or rubrum is red. You already knew that, but lets consider the color of caerulea – what color is that? The common name of Puya caerulea is “Blue Puya,” so there you have the answer. Passiflora caerulea displays a blue part to its flower, while the cultivar 'Constance Elliott' is white. The elderly Ms. Elliott herself has white poodle-like hair, but it does have a blue tinge to it. The word caeruleus is derived from the Latin word caelum meaning “heaven” or “sky.” One of my favorite painters is the French impressionist Berthe Morisot, and she used caerulean blue for the woman's coat in her 1879 painting of Summer's Day. But for heaven's sake take off the coat – it's hot!

Aesculus flava

Sarracenia flava

Hymenosporum flavum

Acer palmatum 'Flavescens'

Aesculus flava has yellow flowers and so does Sarracenia flava and so does Hymenosporum flavum, while Acer palmatum 'Flavescens' displays yellow-green foliage. So, we can assume that the word refers to “yellow.”

Acer griseum

Ferdinand Pax
Acer griseum was so-named due to the gray down on new leaves, and I always enjoy the unfurling of the foliage in spring. The name is derived from Latin griseus for “gray.” The species was discovered in China by E.H. Wilson in 1901, then named by the botanist Ferdinand Albin Pax (1858-1942) in 1902. I wonder why the German Pax was allowed to choose the specific name, and you would think that Wilson, or at least his employer Veitch, would have wanted some say in the matter. I don't know – maybe they did – but I would have chosen something to do with the trunk's exfoliating bark. Pax was unable to use the three leaflets for a specific name because botanist Kamarov christened Acer triflorum at the same time (1901) that Wilson was in China.

Taxodium ascendens 'Nutans'

There are many other ways that plants are specifically named. Taxodium ascendens refers to the ascending branches, but I find it humorous that there exists a cultivar 'Nutans', for that means “nodding.” I grow one by my pond and it's an attractive tree, but the only thing that nods is the erect foliage sprays that hang downward as the season progresses. I guess you could call it the up-and-down tree.

Spartium junceum

Spartium junceum is the “Spanish broom,” and even though it is considered a noxious invasive species, I enjoyed my two specimens until a hard winter got the better of them. It received it Latin specific epithet junceum due to its rush-like shoots which show a resemblance to the rush genus Juncus. The name Spartium is from the Greek word denoting “cardage” in reference to the use of the plant, where cardage means “the action of, or rate charged, for carting.”

Manihot esculenta

Phytolacca esculenta

Esculentus is Latin for “esculent, edible.” Manihot esculenta is commonly known as tapioca for example. Phytolacca esculenta is the “pokeweed” from China, and its leaves can be cooked and used as a spinach. Only the young leaves should be used since they become toxic with age. Hmm, at what point do you stop using them? I think I'll pass in any case, and I would furthermore suggest that the specific name be changed instantly.

Encephalartos horridus
Oplopanax horridus

Plants with horridus for a specific name are just as you imagine: horribly armed with spines or barbs. Encephalartos horridus is commonly called the “Ferocious Blue Cycad” and is native to the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Oplopanax horridus is commonly known as the “Devil's club” as the stems are viciously studded with spines, and the photo above was taken in a soggy meadow below my house. Native Americans used the inner bark and roots to treat rheumatism and arthritis. It was also taken by shamans wishing to attain supernatural powers, which would come in handy for me as well...but I've yet to try it.

Betula utilis

Betula utilis 'Jermyns'

Betula utilis is so-named because it is “useful.” This birch from the Himalaya grows at elevations up to 4500m (14,800'). Locally known as bhojpatra, its bark was used in ancient times for writing Sanskrit scriptures and texts. Even now it is used as paper for writing sacred mantras, then placed in an amulet and worn for protection.

A few more specific plant epithets follow:

Tulipa humilis

Tulipa humilis – “low-growing, dwarf.”

Rhododendron insigne

Rhododendron insigne – from Latin insignus for “remarkable.”

Helleborus hybridus

Helleborus hybridus – “hybrid, mixed, mongrel.”

Alnus glutinosa

Alnus glutinosa – from Latin glutinosus for “gluey, sticky.”

Angelica gigas

Angelica gigas – “of giants, immense.”

Cathaya argyrophylla

Cathaya argyrophylla – from Latin argyrophyllus for “silver leaf.”

Magnolia denudata

Magnolia denudata – from Latin denudatus for “denuded.”

Osmanthus fragrans

Osmanthus fragrans – “fragrant.”


Sequoiadendron giganteum
Toxicodendron diversilobum

Acer sterculiaceum

Acer sterculiaceum

Some specific names are quite obvious and seem essential in the plant's classification, such as for Sequoiadendron giganteum. In other cases it is apparent when you look at the plant, such as with Toxicodendron diversilobum, but not really the defining essence of the plant. And finally there are times where the botanist nitpicks at the tiniest detail when bestowing the specific epithet, such as with Acer sterculiaceum which was named for Sterculius, the Roman god of smell (from stercus or “manure”). I don't know but I don't smell anything. Except see below...

Unutilis politicians

If I ever start a zoo I'll do a similar blog on specific animal names. For example: Homo sapiens is considered homo for “man (technically male human),” and sapiens, from sapare, to “be wise.” Clearly our political leadership does not consist of Homo sapiens, but rather of Homo unutilis.


  1. I love all the Latin names but in my 40 yrs of landscape and nursery work I can say, my clients didn't.

    BTW, I'm pretty good at plant identification but I bought a bunch of seedlings this spring and there is one I can't identify. It has a 3 lobed leaf like an Acer rubrum but it had alternate branching. Does my description rig a bell?

  2. I finally let myself sit at my desk this miserably hot day and actually read this blog. Awesome!! So mad I've denied myself the pleasure so many times before. Just terrific...