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A bouquet of flower and plant word histories

Many of the flowers commonly found in our gardens have word histories worthy of note. For example, the word daisy is from Old English doegeseage meaning literally “day eye;” while marigold is a compound formed from the name Mary, the mother of Christ and the word gold. Interestingly, it is also thought that the “lady” in lady bug refers to Mary, as do the dialectal variants lady beetle, lady bird and lady cow.

Dandelion came to English from Old French “dent de lion,” meaning “lion’s tooth” in reference to the plant’s deeply spiked leaves. In the U.S. we have coined a variety of names for this plant that are uniquely ours. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) lists regional names for the dandelion such as butterflower, blow weed, china lettuce, grand daddy’s whiskers, Irish daisy, wine weed and pissy-bed. This last nickname certainly gets your attention because it describes how you are likely to feel especially if you are trying to eradicate dandelions from your yard or flowerbeds.

The word pansy also came into English from Old French. It is from the word for “thought” pensée. Other names for the pansy are heartsease, kiss-me-at-the-garden-gate, love-in-idleness and three-faces-under-a-hood. Like pansy, the word petunia has a French connection as well, although this flower name is originally from Tupi, a language spoken in Brazil and Paraguay. The Tupi word petyn was first borrowed into French as petun “tobacco.” The word petun, now obsolete in French, is now part of petunia because of its botanical relationship to the tobacco plant. It is also linguistically relevant to point out that in the U.S. petunia is not just a name for a flower. In some dialects of American English petunia is also a nickname for a skunk.

Peony came into our language from Greek through Latin. In Greek, Paion, was Apollo’s title as physician. The name peony first appears in American English in Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book (1771).

If you have met gardeners from other parts of the U.S., you may have heard some of the variant pronunciations of this particular flower name. These include pioney, piney and piney rose. It is also still possible to hear “pee-oh-nee,” with a long [o], a pronunciation that just manages to hang on, most likely from an 18th century rule of pronunciation. In addition to peony, the Greek language also gave us rhododendron (lit. “rose tree”) philodendron (lit. “loving tree”) and hydrangea (lit. “water vessel”). Zinnias are in high demand in our gardens, not only because of their colorful, long lasting blooms, but also because they attract butterflies and bees. Zinnias are originally from Central and South America and are named after the German botanist Johann Gottfried Zinn (1727-1759).

Of course not all plants in the garden or on our land are as welcome as our flowers. Kudzu is from Japanese kuzu. When we hear the word kudzu in the U.S. we think of an invasive vine also called “the-foot-a-night-vine,” “Arkansas traveler,” “overnight vine” or “the vine that ate the South.” But in Japan kuzu is highly valued for the fine white powder made from its dried roots. This powder can be used for tea and in cooking. It is especially valued for its superiority as a thickener and the glossy, smooth shine it brings to sauces. Apparently in Japan, kuzu powder is much more desired as a thickener than cornstarch, because it leaves no grainy texture or unpleasant after taste in your mouth. Maybe we should explore some of these culinary possibilities since kudzu seems to be such a happily prolific plant in the southern United States.

Vetch and poison ivy are other enemies to the garden. Vetch comes from Latin vicia and if you’ve ever waged a war for territory with this plant, you will not be surprised to learn that vetch used to mean “something of little or no value.” I would respectfully suggest that we use vetch as a synonym for “an extremely annoying situation or problem that is difficult if not impossible to eradicate.” In fact, I’m in favor of exonerating the poor dandelion’s reputation and giving vetch the alternate name pissy-bed. Poison ivy grows around the country. Its wide-ranging presence could explain why there are a variety of names for this uninvited garden crasher including poisonous ivy, poison ivory, ground ivy, cowitch, itch weed and shoestring weed. It is also common to hear people simply refer to it as “poison,” especially in Central Virginia.

In conclusion, it doesn’t matter if you are fighting a battle with poison ivy or shoestring weed, whether you use a watering can or watering pail, if you are a gardener working to keep your flowers and plants beautiful in this blisteringly hot summer, this column is dedicated to you.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.