How some of our spring flowering favourites found their names

Posted on Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

While the common names for plants aren’t always the most precise nomenclature (‘bachelor’s button’ for example is used as a name for many different flowers which were worn in lapel buttonholes in Victorian times), they can be very revealing about the plant’s origins, historic uses or mythical symbolism. Here are the stories behind the names of some spring flowering plants…

Dicentra spectabilisBleeding heart/
lady in the bath

While most of us will know Dicentra spectabilis as ‘Bleeding heart’, due to the flower shape which looks like a dripping heart (shown here), the name ‘lady in the bath’ may not be as familiar. But turn the flower upside down and you’ll see that it does, indeed, resemble a lady in the bath!

The derivation of the botanical name is more boring. Dicentra derives from the Greek ‘di’, meaning ‘two’, and ‘kentron’ meaning ’spur’, referring to the two upward pointing parts of the flower (known as spurs). Spectabilis comes from the Latin meaning ’spectacular’, which the flower display certainly is at the height of its season.


Nothing quite heralds spring like a bed of daffodils. Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the poet William, described these cheery flowers perfectly when recollecting that they “tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind”. The botanical genus name ‘Narcissus’ relates to the myth of the Greek youth Narcissus who became so infatuated with his own reflection in a pool that, upon realising that he could never possess it, died. The flower sprang up from the spot. However, it’s not clear whether the flower was named after the youth of the legend or vice versa.

The common name daffodil is thought to originate from Asphodel, a genus of flowering plants, the yellow variety of which is similar to daffodils. Affodell was a variant of Asphodel and became ‘affodil. The ‘d’ is thought to have been added either due to the Dutch ‘de’ (meaning ‘the’) being added to make “de ‘affodil”, or due to Asphodels being known in Britain as “bastard ‘affodil”.


It doesn’t seem quite right that the petite, delicate cyclamen should be lumbered with such an unbecoming common name. The name first appeared in the 1551 ‘herbal’ (a book of plants used for medicinal purposes) written by botanist William Turner. Here it was named ‘Sawesbread’, which has over time become sowbread. The origins of the name refers to the purported use of cyclamen roots as food for pigs.

The genus name Cyclamen is more simplistic in its origins, coming from the Greek ‘kyklo’ meaning ‘circle’, and probably referring to the stems, which curl up when the flower is spent and the seeds are developing.

Columbine/Granny’s bonnet

It’s not hard to work out why Aquilegia flowers are known as Granny’s bonnet when you look at the pretty, nodding flowers of this cottage garden favourite. However Columbine is slightly less easy to guess at. The word derives from the Latin ‘columba’, meaning ‘dove’. There are various theories about why these plants are dove-like. Some believe that if you hold the flowers upright then they resemble a ring of doves drinking, others consider the leaf shape to be bird-like, while others think that the shape of the flower, with one petal and all the sepals removed, looks a little like a hovering dove.

The name Aquilegia is thought to either derive from the Latin ‘aquila’, meaning ‘eagle’, due to the flower’s spurs resembling eagles’ talons, or from ‘aquilegus’, meaning a ‘water container’, relating to the similarity of the flower’s shape to Greek amphoras.


Which came first the name of the colour or the name of the plant? Well, in this case we know the answer; the name of the plant came first. The lilac was so named after the Arabic word laylak or the Persian word nylac, both meaning ‘blue’. The plant was introduced into France in the 16th century. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that ‘lilac’ also came to mean a pale purple/pink colour.

The botanical genus name for lilac, Syringa, derives from the Greek ’syrinx’, meaning ‘pipe’, because the stems of lilacs can be hollowed out and were used in Turkey to make pipes.