The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707 to 1778) established the Latin/Linnean plant-naming system. In this binomial system, plants have two-part botanical names. The first part is the genus, a sort of group surname. The second part or epithet, identifies the species. It is a descriptive name that pinpoints the plant’s place of origin or shape or other distinguishing features. Sometimes, the epithet is simply a translation of the plant’s name into Latin.
Birds of Paradise
Strelitzia reginae is the botanical name of the bird of paradise or crane flower. Its introduction to England’s Royal Gardens at Kew in 1773 was thanks to Sir Joseph Banks, a noted botanist and the unofficial director of the Gardens. He named the bird of paradise in honor of Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of King George III. “Strelitia” acknowledges Queen Charlotte’s title of Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. “Reginae” means “of the Queen.” The bird of paradise has long, leathery leaves and orange flowers encased in a purplish bract. Another South African species, Strelitzia nicolai, commonly called the white bird of paradise, honors Czar Nicholas I of Russia. It is a palm-like plant with bract-enclosed white flowers. This giant flower bloomed for the first time in 1858 in the Imperial Botanical Gardens of St. Petersburg, Russia. Strelitzia flowers can take years to bloom, preferring rich, well-drained soil and temperatures in a range from 50 degrees to 75 degrees F. They are members of the Strelitziaceae family.
Sometimes, the genus and the epithet take flights of fancy. For example, the blue cornflower, also called bachelor’s button or bluebottle, has the botanical name Centaurea cyanus and has quite a background. “Centaurea” represents the centaur Chiron. According to legend, the cornflower cured a wound suffered by the centaur when an arrow, tipped with the blood of Hydra, pierced him. “Cyanus” honors the mortal who loved the cornflower and fashioned garlands from it. The goddess Flora transformed Cyanus into the plant he loved when he died. Alternatively “Cyanus” may derive from the nymph Cyane, the daughter of the river god Meidanros. Cornflowers grow to a height of about 2 feet, preferring full sun, flowering between June and September and attracting butterflies and bees. This annual is a member of the daisy family.
“Rosa” is the botanical genus of the rose. It means “red” in Latin, signifying the color of the earliest flowers. Rosa gallica stands for “the French rose.” It is the oldest known rose. It grew wild in Europe and Asia from earliest times. Its recorded history dates back to the 12th century B.C. Rosa damascena, “the damask rose,” is equally historic. A North African version named Rosa damascena semperflorens or “the Autumn damask” appeared about 50 B.C. Never before had the Romans encountered a rose that bloomed continually. Rosa damascena semperflorens retained this distinction until the arrival of “tea roses” from China hundreds of years later, so named because they came in boxes of tea.
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