What’s in a name?

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones.

Photos: Margaret Richards.

Plant naming has always seemed to me rather a strange, esoteric and erudite practice. Nevertheless I am always curious to discover how and why plants were given their names.

Sometimes the explanation is very simple, a bit unimaginative perhaps, but still very accurate. For example the Cape Chestnut, one of our most beautiful forest trees with its large heads of pale pink star-like flowers, is called Calodendron capense. Kalos meaning beautiful and dendron tree in Greek. Capense means ‘of the Cape’ in Latin.

Satyrium princeps. Photo: Margaret Richards
Satyrium princeps.
Photo: Margaret Richards

A more imaginative name, derived in this case from the physical form of the flowers, is that of the Satyrium princeps, a vulnerable orchid which flowers in Steenbok Nature Reserve in October. It is thought that the descriptive Satyrium alludes to the two-spurred lip of the flowers as being like a satyr – the half-man, half-goat with two budding horns which inhabits Greek mythology. The Latin princeps refers to the ‘princely’ or ‘most distinguished’ appearance of the rose-pink to deep carmine flowering spike.

Another plant family which gets its name from Greek mythology is the Protea family, named after the Greek god Proteus. Because proteas appear in such an amazing variety of sizes and colours, they were named after the Greek god who could change his shape at will. The names of the different protea species can also be interesting. For example, our national flower the King protea is called Protea cynaroides. The bud of the flower looks very like a globe artichoke, which has the Latin name Cynara scolymus, hence cynaroides. Cynara is thought to come from the Greek cyno meaning dog – a reference to the spiny bracts round the flowers which look like dogs’ teeth!

Strelitzia reginaea. Franz Bauer ca 1820
Strelitzia reginaea.
Franz Bauer ca 1820

Some plant names honour people. These could be the person who first described or discovered them, an eminent botanist from a previous century, or perhaps a long-forgotten royal personage. The Crane flower or Strelitzia reginae honours Queen Charlotte, wife of George III of England and a keen amateur botanist, whose family name was Mecklenberg-Streliz. She was queen when this new exotic plant was first sent to England from the Cape. Our own former President Nelson Mandela has a rare and spectacular yellow-flowering Strelizia reginae named ‘Mandela’s Gold’ in his honour.


Zantedeschia aethiopica. Photo: Margaret Richards
Zantedeschia aethiopica.
Photo: Margaret Richards

One of our most iconic and widely-known plants – the Arum lily – was named Zantedeschia aethiopica. How complicated is that? Known in Europe since the mid-17th century it was initially named Calla aethiopica (beauty from Africa) by Swedish botanist Linnaeus, the founder of modern systematic botany. Later the name was changed to Zantedeschia aethiopica by the German botanist, Kurt Sprengel, to honour his friend Giovanni Zantedeschi, an Italian botanist. Unsurprisingly the plant is mainly known today as the Calla lily in Europe and America or the Arum lily in South Africa. This is in spite of it not actually being a lily but rather an aroid, which has a spike of minute flowers round a fleshy axis enclosed by a leaf-like bract. In the Cape this beautiful plant is sometimes called a Pig lily as the bulbs are enjoyed by wild pigs and porcupines.

As Diana Wells says in her delightful little book 100 Flowers and How they got their Names, ‘If we fail to remember the history of our flowers, we know them less, and to trace their link with us is to make them part of our lives. If we forget they are part of our lives, we may be too casual about them…if all the flowers died, the world we know would be no more…