The stories behind the names

Posted on Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

In autumn and winter any flowering plants are precious, bringing a bit of colour into an otherwise dreary scene. So we’ve taken a look at some of our favourite autumn and winter flowering plants and how they got their names.

Japanese anemones – Anemone hupehensis

These autumn flowering blooms were brought back to England from China in 1844 by Robert Fortune, hence the oriental part of their name.

The genus name Anemone may derive from the Greek ‘anemos’ meaning ‘wind’ and as a result they used to be called ‘windflowers’. Back to the times of Pliny it was suggested that the flowers would only open when the wind blows, although the name is more likely to result from the fact that anemones can grow on windy, exposed sites.

Another explanation is that the name comes from Adonis, the Greek God of beauty and desire, because the Persian for his name is ‘Naamen’. Aphrodite was said to have fallen in love with Adonis and, when he was killed while hunting, she wept over him as he died, and the anemone grew where either her tears or his blood soaked the ground.

Winter jasmine – Jasminum nudiflorum

Jasmines are so named from the original Persian name ‘yasmin’. The winter flowering jasmine is botanically called nudiflorum, meaning ‘naked’. But there’s nothing rude about this! It’s simply a reference to the fact that the yellow flowers appear on bare, or naked, stems. Along with the Japanese anemone (above) this plant was introduced to Europe by Robert Fortune in 1844.

Oregon grape holly – Mahonia

Mahonia x wagneri 'Pinnacle'

The genus Mahonia was named after Bernard M’Mahon, a political refugee from Ireland, who popularised gardening in America in the early 1800s.

The common name ‘Oregon grape’ is simply explained – the plant originates from the American far west and the berries resemble grapes, they can also be used to make wine.

The bright yellow flowers of Mahonia x wagneri ‘Pinnacle’ are shown here.

Poinsettia – Euphorbia pulcherrima

The poinsettia originated in Mexico, where legend has it that a young girl, too young to provide a gift to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, instead picked some weeds and presented them at church, where they sprang into the crimson blooms of the poinsettia. The plant’s common name is a dedication to Dr Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was the first US ambassador to the Republic of Mexico from 1825 to 1829. A keen botanist, Dr Poinsett brought the plant to America. He was also the founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, which is now known as the Smithsonian Institution.

The genus, Euphorbia, is said to be named after Euphorbus, physician to King Juba of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania (in North Africa).

Violet/pansy – Viola

Viola 'Huntercombe Purple'

The viola is said to be named after Io, a young girl who the God Zeus fell in love with. To hide her from his wife, Hera, he changed Io into a young cow. But Hera became suspicious when she saw the pretty white heifer with violets in her mouth and asked Zeus to give her the cow, which he did. Eventually, after making the heifer’s life a misery, Hera changed Io back into a girl, but only once Zeus had promised never to look at her again.

Violas have long been associated with love; the Elizabethan called them ‘heart’s-ease’, Napoleon had a locket containing violets picked from his beloved Josephine’s grave and the name ‘pansy’ derives from the French ‘penser’, to think, relating them to purity of thought.

Viola ‘Huntercombe Purple’ is shown here.