What's in a name?

How to turn a pleasant pastime into a hobby that makes the brain creak.

As a child I asked the name of a tall white daisy and was told 'a marguerite’. When showing off this new-found knowledge in front of a group of family and friends, I was told it was a ‘dog daisy’, an ‘ox-eye daisy’ and a ‘moon penny’. How can that be? Very confusing!

margueriteThis was exactly the problem with the names of wildflowers for centuries. A plant had folk names that changed from region to region depending on what healing power, mythical legend or description anyone chose to give it. Say 'bluebell' to a true Scot and they will picture a harebell - the bluebell of Scotland. 

Then, in the 1600s, along came Caspar Bauhin who devised a plan for giving each plant two names: 

  • The first name, the equivalent of our surname, is the generic, or group name. For example, Rosa.

  • The second name is the specific or species name, as in our Christian name. For example: canina  = Rosa canina (dog-rose).

So, my marguerite becomes Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum. ‘Chrysos’ from the Greek for gold, ‘anthos’, a flower,  ‘leucos’, white and 'anthemon’, flower. In other words, it is the gold-coloured chrysanthemum in a white-flowered form.

This simplified matters; but it was not until the great Swedish naturalist, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), undertook the mammoth job of methodically naming and classifying the whole living world 'from buffaloes to buttercups’, that the dual name system became universally accepted. He indexed the vegetative world with such a sound system that most of his names are still in use to this day the world over.

thistle My marguerite is now in the family Asteracea - the world’s largest family of flowering plants, with around 23,000 subspecies and, in evolutionary terms, one of the most advanced. This family is also known as the daisy (common name) and composites (the old name) and includes the likes of dandelions, thistles and wormwood.

Of course, new species, subspecies, varieties, hybrids  and cultivars have arrived on the scene post Linnaeus. It now gets a bit technical, but I will try and give an explanation of Linnaeus life's work on the plant classification system in a nutshell.

  • Families are made of plants that share enough common features for them to be put into the same family group even though they may look superficially quite different. For example, dandelions and thistles.

  • The family can then be split into genera (the plural of genus). For example, a marsh thistle comes under the genus cirsium.

  • The genera are then divided into species. The species name for the marsh thistle is palustre (of the marsh).

  • The species may then be divided into a subspecies based on several conspicuous differences in character, genetics or ecological or geographical criteria, or any combination of these. For example, the flower may have longer petals, grow in a different soil type or only be found in Ireland.

With me so far?  Because here we go again!

  • A variety is a subdivision of a species or subspecies with only one to a few characteristic and / or genetic differences but not generally with differences in ecological or geographic criteria. For example, the flower may have longer petals but grow in the same soil type and could be widespread.
  • Hybrids occur when two species cross or are crossed to give rise to a new plant. Roses hybridise frequently, both naturally or intentionally by man (or woman!).
  • A cultivar is a form of a species or hybrid selected either in the wild or in cultivation and maintained in gardens. So, a large flowered  but unscented species could be crossed with a small flowering, highly perfumed plant to form a hybrid; then the ones with the best colour or least thorns or the one most resistant to disease could be selected for cultivation.

New research, such as DNA testing, has led to some well-loved flowers undergoing a name or classification change. How many of you still think of pelargoniums as geraniums? My marguerite is now Leucanthemum vulgare which translates as common white flower!

One of the biggest plant surprises I’ve recently learnt about is that the bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta old name (Endymion non-scriptus) has moved from the lily family to the asparagus family.

dandelionFor the hobbyist flower-lover who just likes  flowers for their beauty, common names are fine and fun, providing entertainment with names like stinking iris, enchanter's nightshade, fleabane, sneezewort, viper's bugloss and sticky willy.

But for the more conscientious botanist, a serious amount of studying needs to be done to be able to identify plants accurately. I can recommend The Wild Flower Key by Dr Francis Rose, MBE. It took over 20 years to write and represents a lifetime’s experience of plant identification. It’s not for the faint-hearted but once you have mastered how the keys work you should be able to identify any known plant. It is a bit like a treasure hunt or cryptic crossword puzzle - solving clues to get to the right answer.

The keys will make you aware of details such as leaf form (shape, vein pattern etc), flower structure (counting stamens and identifying whether the ovary is inferior or superior), what form the seeds take and in what habitat it is usually found (a good indicator of climate change). These are among a myriad of other features needed to make a correct identification.

If you want to find a marguerite or ox-eye daisy at Bedgebury, they are growing on the car park verges and up the Cherry Tree Avenue.  Happy hunting!

Helen Coggin Helenium Cogginii x Marplesinia pulchellum 


To help you translate the names look for the letters (L.) or (Gr.) to denote whether the name derives from Latin or Greek. In Latin the colour white can be 'albus', 'alba' or 'album' depending on whether it is masculine, feminine or neuter respectively. The Greek for white is ‘leucos’. As always, things are not that easy! You can also have ‘candicans’ (bright white) ‘pallida’ (pale white) etc!