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What Do Flower Names Mean?

The names of garden flowers have meanings based on Latin root words

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Do you know your cauli-flower from your semper-flowering (begonia)? Do you know whether, when you see "long" in a flower name, it actually means long? English flower names, by and large, come from Latin words that might be used to describe flowers. This page explains how to analyze the Latin part of flower names, while the following page provides a list of flowers, so you can practice your new-found understanding of practical Latin.

Binomial System of Flower Names

Perhaps the first thing to note is that plants have at least two names, a genus name, which is broad and capitalized, and a lower case species name that is, well, more specific. There may also be a variety name, but that's for a botany site to deal with. The name to the left is the genus and the one after it is the species. Sometimes these look very much the same.

Latin Origin of Flower

The ending of most of these words and the beginning of a few others derive from the Latin verb to flower, floreo. Technically or for those who remember their Latin, it comes from the past participle of floreo: florus, flora, florum. Some examples of how floreo appears in flower names are:

  • angustiflorus (narrow-flowered because angustus=narrow),
  • cauliflorus (flowered on the stem because caulis=stem), and
  • grandiflorus (large-flowered because grandis=large).

There are usually 3 forms for each Latin-based word because in Latin (and Greek):

  • (A) adjectives, including participles, must agree with the nouns they modify, and
  • (B) nouns come in 3 genders.
In this case, the nouns the "florus" words (e.g., cauliflorus) modify would be the plants' genus names. One would expect the genus + species name for the white vegetable to be something like Brassica cauliflora, but it's not. This is not a lesson in botany, so you'll have to ask someone else why the current, botanical genus and species name for cauliflower is the same as that for broccoli.

Finding the Right Adjective to Go With the Gender of the Plant's Genus Name

Masculine Plant Names

If the Latin genus name of the plant is masculine, the species name is masculine (generally, ending in "-us"). "Asparagus" is a masculine noun. It's also the genus name. Asparagus densiflorus is a densely-flowered asparagus plant. The adjectival ending -us on densiflorus (the species designation; note the lower case) shows us it's masculine.

Feminine Plant Names

If a noun is feminine, it requires a feminine adjective (usually signified in this list by an "a" ending). Pinus is the Latin word (noun) for a fir tree. Despite the "us" ending on the noun, pinus is feminine. A densely-flowered fir tree would be Pinus densiflora. The adjectival ending -a on densiflora shows us it's feminine.

Neuter Plant Names

Neuter nouns in Latin often have a "um" ending. So do the adjectives that modify them. Lilium is a neuter plant name (lily). Lilium longiflorum is a lily with long flowers. The adjectival ending -um on longiflorum shows us it's masculine.

Sometimes there is only one ending. Begonia is a feminine flower name, but the ever popular, ever-flowering species is Begonia semperflorens because there is only one form of the adjective for ever-flowering (semperflorens [semper = 'always'; florens comes from the present participle of the floreo verb that produced the adjective florus]).

The first form listed is the dictionary form and is generally masculine. The next form is the feminine and the last is the neuter. This applies when there are 3 forms shown. For example, abundiflorus is masculine, abundiflora is feminine, and abundiflorum is neuter. Should there be only two forms, the first is masculine or feminine, and the second is neuter.

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