What’s in a (plant’s) name?

by How Does Your Garden Grow? By Sharon Daniels

What’s in a (plant’s) name?

How could low-growing, perennial Candytuft, which produces snowy white flowers in spring, have a connection with candy? Why do some plant names contain words such as “wort” or “bane”? Who named Pawpaws, and how did they come up with that word?

Some common names have been passed down from folklore; others are based on theological or herbal studies.

Maybe you have idly wondered how plants with odd common names—such as Hens and Chicks—are called that. These succulents have a large central rosette (hen) which spawns multiple smaller rosettes (chicks) around it, “chicks” nestling under and against the “hen” as you might see in a farmyard. But someone somewhere decided on “Hens and Chicks” rather than “Mothers and Children.”

Pawpaws were first mentioned in 1541 by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. The name simply may be derived from the Spanish word “papaya.”

Around 60 AD a Greek botanist wrote an herbal encyclopedia, suggesting that herbs which resemble parts of the body might effectively treat a particular body part. In the 16th century the Doctrine of Signatures was supported in work of Paracelsus who believed herbalists could use herbs resembling parts of the body to treat ailments of those body parts.

For instance, it was thought that the red extract of Bloodroot might fix a problem with a person’s blood, or walnuts used to cure head ailments since the nut meat resembles a brain.

The Doctrine of Signatures may not be sound for medical purposes, but it has produced intriguing stories of plants.

The signature of Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is recognizable as its opposite leaves clasp around the stem, as broken bones knit together. There is no available evidence, though, that this plant was ever used to heal a fracture.

A 19th-century botanist, Rafinesque, wrote that the common name came from Boneset’s use in treating “breakbone fever” or dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness whose symptoms include intense bone pain. Now, contemporary scholars have found that Boneset has some effectiveness in treating fevers.

“Wort” refers simply to an herb or plant, and you know some with that word in the common name: Spiderwort (Tradescantia), Soapwort (Bouncing Bet), Toothwort, so called because the rhizome has been described as resembling teeth. Also, at one time that plant was prescribed to treat toothache.

Tiny holes in St. John’s Wort leaves resemble skin pores, so it was thought it could be helpful for skin wounds. The dried plant supposedly was carried by early missionaries because of their high regard for St. John the Baptist. Today its calming properties make it a popular over-the-counter remedy for stress.

Other odd names to contemplate: Wolfbane (same as Monkshood), Love Lies Bleeding, Snapdragon, Sneezeweed, Joe Pye Weed, Johnny Jump-Up, Dutchman’s Breeches.

Happy 2020, all.

Sharon Daniels is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteer.