Curiouser and Curiouser - Plant Names

By Kathy Salisbury
Director, Ambler Arboretum of Temple University

What's in a name? Perhaps as you have been exploring the natural areas around you and learning the names of plants you have encountered some strange names. 

All plants have a scientific name. This is the name written in italics and it is the same all over the world. There is only one plant with this scientific name. Plants also have common names. These are names given to the plants regionally by the people who use the plant or grow the plant. While the scientific names of plants can be interesting in their own way, common names are often interesting too. 

The bloom above? That's Fleabane. Why Fleabane? Fleabane was thought to repel fleas and was put in sachets or burned to keep fleas and other pests away — no evidence has shown this to be actually effective. Other banes indicate the faith in these plants to ward off other threats — leopard's bane, dogbane, henbane for example. 

Other interesting or weird plant names you may come across include:

Tickseed: The seeds of the plants in the Coreopsis genus resemble ticks. 

Boneset: Two theories on this one. First that it was an herb used to help in healing broken bones, or that it was a medicinal herb used in treating an ailment called Bone Fever. 

Any plant with the word 'wort' in it — Lungwort (pictured just above) or Liverwort, for example. Wort is the Old English word for plant and often plants that looked like a particular part of the body were thought to cure ailments of that body part. So Liver Plant and Lung Plant were thought to be medicinal for the liver and lungs. This is called the Doctrine of Signatures. Spiderwort is a little different. Spiderwort so named because when you cut the stems, sap is released that forms thin strands like spiderweb silk when you remove the cut part of the plant. 

As you explore public gardens, check out the plant labels — look at the scientific names and the common names. What do you think they tell you about the plants?

Resources: Brooklyn Botanic Garden Weed of the Month; The Secrets of Wildflowers by Jack Sanders; and the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Database