March 31, 2011

What's In A Name? Spring Bulbs' Botanic Meanings

I was walking my dog in the neighborhood recently, enjoying the spring bulbs that come up so quickly and change so fast.  Snowdrops, then crocuses, then daffodils, and soon tulips.  I started thinking about their names.  Snowdrops I understand, but what does its botanic name Galanthus mean?  Crocus is a rather odd sounding word.  Daffodil evokes images of spring by just saying it. And its botanic name Narcissus conjures images of its own.  So I did some research on the origins of bulb names, both botanic and common. 

In order to understand the origin of any botanic name you first have to know about Carolus Linnaeus. “Carl” was a Swedish naturalist in the mid-eighteenth century.  He is responsible for the universally accepted naming system we use today to describe and classify plants.  While the genus category was already around, he created species names to categorize plants within a genus more specifically, and give descriptions of plant characteristics and uses as well. This system is called Binomial Nomenclature.  Apparently he classified himself too since he was born as Carl von Linne.  These names are referred to as botanic or scientific names.  Many call them Latin but they are really a combination of Latin, Greek, and some made up by Linnaeus to describe the ever-expanding world of discovered plants at that time.

Common names are what most of us grow up learning.  They are often descriptive and easier to recall.  But they can cause confusion.  Common names vary not at the very least by region.  In Ireland, impatiens are called busy lizzies.  In the south, lilyturf is monkey grass.  Some plants have two or three common names even in the same area.  It behooves us to learn the botanic names – at least the genera.  Many garden centers and books organize plants by these names.  And more and more I am seeing them used as the common name.  Heuchera is often heard instead of coral bells (a name that is not usually accurate anymore since most are bred for colored leaves but usually the flowers are ivory).

So back to bulbs.  Galanthus nivalis is the botanic name for snowdrops.  These nodding, white, teardrop-shaped flowers are among the earliest we see.  They often bloom in the snow.  Galanthus is Greek for milk flower.  Nivalis means snowy or snow-covered.  This Linnaeus creation is certainly in line with its common name.

Crocus is also a Greek word meaning saffron or yellow.  The common name here is the same.  The ancient crocus that produces saffron is a fall blooming bulb, Crocus sativus, meaning cultivated crocus. There is another fall bulb called autumn crocus, but it is another genus entirely.  (Those pesky common names again).  The rare and pricey saffron is obtained from its stigmas for dyes, flavoring, and medicinal use.  It takes around 4000 stigmas for an ounce of saffron.  There are many species of crocus and most plants we purchase today as spring blooming bulbs are cultivars.  Cultivars are manmade hybrids formerly referred to as varieties.

Narcissus is the botanic name for daffodil.  Here the common name daffodil is itself derived from another genus name most likely by way of a Dutch alteration.  It certainly is not a common name that evokes an image we can relate to like snowdrops.  Narcissus is of course the handsome youth in Greek mythology who fell in love with his reflection at his own peril.  This flower was named in his honor.

Tulips have a unique history of their own.  And I will delve into that story in my next post.

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