Common names are local names.
Unlike the scientific names they have limitations, and are usually derived from an observed physical characteristic such as color, leaf shape, habitat, place of origin, or perhaps a local interpretation of the original Greek or Latin.
Whatever the origin, the common name, by definition, is not universal and therefore can create a confusion of identity.
A great example of the built-in confusion is a common wetland wildflower which in Latin is Caltha palustris. In North America, its common name is Marsh Marigold. It does grow in marshes, but couldn’t be farther from a marigold. (That family is called Tagetes.) In England, the same plant is called Primrose. However, it’s no closer to that plant group than it is to the marigolds. Primrose is a definite plant family called Priumula.
Moreover, very common names such as Prairie Rose, Wild Rose, Bluebell, Tiger Lily, and many others are applied to various different plants in different places. A well-known confusion of a popular name being two different plants in two different places is Indian Paintbrush. Any Texan knows the brilliant reddish fan-shaped flowers that bloom there in April with the Bluebonnets. But most New Englanders will insist that Indian Paintbrush is the little orange daisy-shaped wildflower that grows in most northeastern lawns. The two wildflowers are as different as apples and oranges, but their names, in their places, are the same.
In many ways, even if they are permanently confused, and not very useful to plant experts, common names are popular because they have local charm, and are often attached to wonderful legends and folklore. They are also, of course, the names most people identify with, and the stories behind these names provide a fascinating context of their own in the natural history of America and the world.
Every wildflower plant profile on this site lists common names, but the short list of selected examples below are particularly illustrative of interesting common names, and where they come from.
Liverwort (Hepatica americana)
The early spring eastern woodland wildflower, “Hepatica,” has quite distinctive three-lobed leaves. Since this three-lobed arrangement was seen as similar to the human liver, medieval herbalists gave this plant group the name “hepatica”, which is Greek for “liver.” (In English, we have other words with the same root, referring to the liver, such as hepatitis.) The common name thus became “Liverwort”, since “wort” simply means plant or root. This is a good example of not only common name derivation but also an example of a major plant naming source called the “Doctrine of Signatures”, originated during the middle ages. Early physicians tried to decide which plants could help cure certain ailments, and they believed that the “signature”—some shape of plant’s parts—could suggest the body part the plant would “cure.” Needless to say, this system of medical prescription was not only wildly incorrect, it was extremely dangerous as well. But many plant names from that time and that concept survive.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
This dramatic common name was derived from the blood-red or orange color of the juices from this beautiful woodland wildflower’s root. The Indians of North America used this juice to paint their faces, and the early colonists used it as a dye. This naming story is always a favorite with children, always interested in “warpaint.”
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra canadensis)
If you’ve ever seen this wildflower, you know the name was created to simply describe the flower. The little dangling two-legged blooms clearly resemble pairs of pants hung out to dry. And of course, a common name like this makes its own history. To many serious Victorians, the name “Dutchman’s Breeches” was considered an unrefined abomination, even though the flowers of this wildflower do resemble pantaloons.
Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
This wildflower has at least two common names: “Trout Lily” and “Adder’s Tongue.” There are several interpretations as to how it got the name “Trout Lily,” but the one considered most likely comes from the fact that its leaves are speckled like the mottled skin of a trout. For the same reason, it was dubbed “Adder’s Tongue” since some people thought it looked more like snakeskin.
Buttercup (Ranuculus acris)
Buttercups are very primitive flowers on the evolutionary scale. As such they have proven to be adept pollinators. Obviously, the shiny butter-colored, cup-shaped flower gave the species its common name. However, as the species name, acris, implies, they have some “bitter” or “acrid” qualities. For this reason another common name is “Blister Root”.
Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)
This beautiful, tall wildflower with its spikes of magenta blooms is a great example of a common name with environmental overtones. This plant is often one of the first to grow after a fire.
Forget-me-Not (Myosotis sp.)
This group of plants is always the ultimate example of common names reflecting romantic floral legends. The famous story involves a German knight gathering blue flowers for his lady love along the banks of the Danube. He is said to have scurried down the bank to gather the flowers just as a “freshet” (flash flood) roared down the river. As he was swept away forever, he tossed the bouquet to his lady with three immortal words, “Forget me not.” Once a story and name like this is applied to a wildflower, it’s there forever.
Drummond Phlox (Phlox drummondii)
This is the famous, short annual phlox species that is native only to central Texas. It’s so beautiful, it’s been heavily hybridized and is enjoyed today worldwide. However, the names, both common and botanical, are for the plant’s “discoverer,” Thomas Drummond. He was an English plant explorer who visited Texas in 1835.