What’s in a Name?


by Dr. Cheryl Boyer

I recently received a kind email from an Extension Master Gardener noting an unfortunate typo on a publication about shrubs that I authored a few years ago. On one page, I mistakenly swapped one letter in the common plant name rendering Taxus xmedia’s title “Anglojap Jew” instead of “Anglojap Yew.” This is, indeed, distasteful and I appreciate the thorough review, which noted the appropriate name use on two other pages of the same publication.

This is a teachable moment, however, and I wanted to take the opportunity to clarify that the common name “Anglojap” does not reference a racial slur of any kind. As with many plants, it references its geographic place of origin. “Anglo” comes from “anglicus” meaning “From England; English.” Taxus is native to Japan, Korea and Manchuria, thus the second part of the common name references “japonicus” or Japan. My references did not state this exactly, but it is likely that the person who introduced Anglojap Yew in 1853 did so with stock from England, but noted its origin in the North Pacific Ocean countries.

Resources to help understand plant names include, of course, Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Another interesting book is A.W. Smith’s A Gardener’s Handbook of Plant Names: Their Meanings and Origins. Fun tidbits from the “A” section of this compendium include:

acanth [ak-anth]

In compound words signifying spiny, spiky, or thorny.

Bears Breeches Acanthus mollis
Bears Breeches
Acanthus mollis

Acanthus [ak-AN-thus]

Greek name meaning thorn. In America it is called “bear’s breech” from the size and appearance of the leaf which is very big, broad, and distinctly hairy. The acanthus leaf was a favorite decoration in classical sculpture, as in the capital of the Corinthian column. In England the bear has been dressed up and it is now called “bear’s breeches” despite long-standing authority to the contrary.

Acanthus mollis flower
Acanthus mollis flower

Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis) is an herbaceous perennial hardy in zones 6 to 10 and can be grown in Stillwater. The species name “mollis” means “Soft; with soft hairs.” So the entire Latin name describes the plant leaves: they are large, broad, and covered with soft hairs. This is to say nothing of the flower on bear’s breeches, which is a quite lovely, bold spike of maroon and white that looks somewhat like snapdragon flowers and can rise two to three feet above the foliage. Other species of Acanthus include Acanthus spinosus (spiny leaves), Acanthus hungaricus (from the country of Hungary, native to the Balkans, Romania, Greece) and Acanthus montanus (pertaining to mountains, native to Western tropical Africa). Some of these names remind me of the spells in the Harry Potter universe—not so different from the English names with which we’re familiar.

Back to the “A” section and I’m learning lots of plant history. Take Abelia for instance:

Abelia [ab-EE-lia]

Ornamental shrubs named for Dr. Clark Abel (1780-1926), who, at the suggestion of Sir Joseph Banks, accompanied Lord Amherst on his embassy to Peking (1816-1817) as botanist. Much of his collection was lost by shipwreck on the way home to Kew. Except for Russian ecclesiastical mission, no European naturalist was to visit China for nearly thirty years thereafter, Robert Fortune (see Fortunella) being among the first to follow. Abel died in India while serving as personal physician to Lord Amherst, who was by that time Governor-General.

I love history! I am always interested in learning about the lives of people who were passionate about similar things. The entry on Fortunella was quite interesting…and long. Robert Fortune (Scottish horticulturalist and plant collector) was a rather well-traveled man in the 1800s (China, India, United States). Most other entries in A.W. Smith’s book are descriptive of origin (“chinensis” = “Chinese”) or botanic characteristic (“serratus” = “saw-toothed” or “hippocastanum” = “Latin name for the horse-chestnut. There is a clearly marked horseshoe under the leaf axils.”). A few are just really informative related to the historical importance of the plant or people involved in discovering and naming them. As a side note, I have colleagues who regularly go on plant collecting trips so I’m aware that plant names are still being determined in present times. I’m sure taxonomists will continue to delve deep into the appropriate nomenclature as time goes on. Even in my own, relatively short time as a horticulturalist, I know of several plants for which the scientific name has been changed (and in some cases, changed back!).

Suffice it to say, there is much more to know about scientific plant names, their meanings and origins. However, I hope this narrative provides some perspective on the primary common name of such a common landscape plant in our region as Anglojap Yew. Naming a plant is an honor and never meant to cause harm or disrespect. Often their names even include warnings as in firethorn, Pyracantha coccinea, which means “thorns with scarlet fruit.” Just make sure to steer clear of Toxicodendron radicans (a toxic plant with rooting stems—poison ivy) or Ilex vomitoria (yaupon holly—great landscape shrub actually, just, you know, don’t eat large quantities of it, okay?) this summer.

Lastly, we did update the publication and I’m grateful for folks who take the time to let us know when something like that needs to be repaired.