Plant Common Names

Medieval legend is behind many of the colourful common names of plants. Because the wild clematis grew so abundantly along the hedgerows and waysides, providing with its ‘thick bushing and climbing’, as one medieval writer put it, ‘goodly shadows’ for weary pilgrims and travellers to rest from the heat of the day, it earned its common name, Traveller’s Joy. Its other name, Virgin’s Bower, arose because it was reputed to have provided shade for the Virgin Mary on her flight from Egypt with the baby Jesus.

Other common names appear to describe the plant’s place of origin, but in fact these names are often misleading.Plant Common Names

For instance, the Scarborough Lily, Vallota speciosa, does not come from the port on the east coast of Britain, but from South Africa. It is said to have gained its common name when a Dutch cargo ship laden with these bulbs foundered close to Scarborough, in Yorkshire. However, it is probable the flower was also well known in the area because it was imported through the port, which gained bonding status in 1841.

The Persian Violet, Exacum affine, is a highly fragrant houseplant that also has a misleading common name. It does not come from Persia but from the Island of Socotra in the

Arabian Sea. Its common name in North America adds further confusion, as it is known there as the German Violet.

Equally misleading is the name of the Guernsey Lily, Nerine sarniensis, which does not come from the Channel Islands but from Table Mountain, Cape Province.

One story suggests that in 16800 Dutch or English ship coming from Japan was wrecked on the island of Guernsey. Bulbs were washed ashore and subsequently flowered, creating a spectacular display. And, because of the wrecked ship’s itinerary, the lily was thought for many years to be a native of Japan. Indeed, it also became known as the Narcissus of Japan.

Popular house plants The common name of the Parlour Palm, Aspidistra elatior, arose in Victorian times because it was widely grown as a house plant in the parlour where it proved itself well able to survive the smoke from coal fires and the fumes from the gaslighting of the Victorian home. However, it is not a palm, but is a member of the lily family. Its North American name, Bar-room Plant, also reflects this tough plant’s ability to withstand smoke and gas fumes.

Names of herbs

Herbs have been in cultivation for many centuries and have also collected a wide variety of common names. Myrrhis odorata, for instance, is widely known today as Sweet Cicely, but has had many other names in the past including Cow Chervil, Great Chervil, Sweet Fern, British Myrrh, Anise, Sweet Chervil, Smooth Cicely, Sweet Bracken, Sweet Fern, Sweet-cus, Shepherd’s Needle, Smother Cicely, Cow Chervil, Sweets, Sweethumlock, and the Roman Plant.

Costmayr, Chrysanthemum balsamita is another old English herb with medicinal properties. It is known as Alecost, Balsam Herb, Costmarie, Mace, and Balsamita.

Forgotten names

The common names of some plants are graduallybeing forgotten. This is a pity, as many of them areamusing, colourful and redolent with tradition.

One such plant is our native Viola tricolor, the part parent of today’s pansies that brighten path edges, patios and window-boxes. This has more than 25 common names, ranging from the somewhat prosaic Anglo-Saxon Banewort and Ban-wort, to those with more romantic associations such as Heartsease, Love-inIdleness, Loving Idol, Love Idol, Love-Lies-Bleeding, Cuddle Me, Jack-JumpUp-And-Kiss-Me, Kiss Her in the Buttery, Flower o’ Luce and Call-Me-to-You. Its multitude of names suggests the affectionate regard this little flower has inspired in country people down the centuries.

Dame’s Violet

The Sweet Rocket or Dame’s Violet, Hesperis matronalis, is a short-lived hardy perennial from Southern Europe with sweetly scented flowers. This has been called many names, including Queen’s Gillofers, Rogue’s Gillofers and Summer Lilac.

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