Why do some plants have weird common names? Many whimsical names are derived from a plant’s appearance or due to a useful property of the plant. Sometimes, a plant’s odd common name is a translation of the original Greek or Latin name for the plant. Other names are more difficult to trace, referring to ancient uses that have been lost over time.
Bleeding Heart (Dicentra exemia)
The common name of Dicentra exemia derives from its distinctive heart-shaped white or pink flowers, which droop from long, curving stems.
Bugbane (Cimicifuga racemosa)
The insect-repelling reputation of this plant is belied by its Latin name, Cimicifuga, which literally means “bug repellent.” Native Americans used the plant to treat menstrual cramps and rheumatism.
Cheeseweed (Malva parviflora)
The fruit of this plant looks like a tiny wheel of cheese. Each section of the fruit resembles a wedge.
Corpse Lily (Amorphophallus titanium)
This is one of the largest flowers in the world, which features a rotting-flesh odor to attract pollinator flies.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Though reviled as a lawn weed, the dandelion has long been valued as a medicinal plant. “Dandelion” is derived from the French “dent de lion,” or lion’s tooth. Another French term for the plant, pis-en-lit (or “wet the bed”) refers to its leaves’ diuretic properties.
Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa)
Don’t touch the devil’s walking stick: To grab onto a limb of Aralia spinosa is to receive a handful of thorns. Except for its leaves, every surface of this plant is covered in hard, sharp spines.
Four-o-clocks (Miribilis Jalapa)
These South American tropical natives are named for their habit of blooming in the late afternoon, which attracts pollinators like hummingbirds and moths.
Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum)
Like a mother hen encircled by chicks, large specimens of this clumping succulent are often surrounded by smaller versions, all of which have tightly spiraled, feather-shaped leaves.
Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodium album)
Because this plant frequently occurs in or on the edges of cultivated fields, the name “lamb’s quarters” is thought to be an alteration of “Lammas quarter,” a medieval harvest festival.
Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana)
This huge, ancient conifer species has an unusual growth habit for an evergreen. Its weird common name is thought to have been coined by a traveling Englishman, who commented it would be quite the puzzle for a monkey to climb.
Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata)
Just like many alleged mothers-in-law in various tales, the “tongues” or leaves of this plant are sharp and pointed.
Naked Ladies (Amaryllis belladonna)
Also known as the surprise lily, the name “naked ladies” derives from the fact that the plant’s flowers emerge long after the foliage has died back, giving the illusion of a “naked” plant.