Books Old and New, Part 4: Gods of Nomenclature

4 Gods

University of Chicago Press, Chicago. (2008)

As I was packing books for my move, which was the impetus for this series of posts on books (1, 2, 3) I’ve acquired in the past and more recently, I came across excellent books by the St. Louis University botanist, Peter Bernhardt.  The first was Wily Violets and Underground Orchids (1989) that drew on his general knowledge of botany and also on his orchid research, particularly in Australia.  Then came Natural Affairs (1993) on relationships between plants and humans and The Rose’s Kiss (1999) that dealt with flower structures and how they function, particularly in luring pollinators.  All these books made the cut and are now safely on bookshelves in my new home, though I couldn’t tell you their precise location—there is little order to the collection at the moment.

The latest Bernhardt book for the general reader is God’s and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants (2008).  This too made the trip and is the one I most wanted to reread.  I’ve done that now and want to share some of its gems with you.  This is probably the most technical of Bernhardt’s books because of its topic.  In order to make his point that the names of plants are in many cases as fascinating as the organisms themselves, he introduces the basics of taxonomy and botanical nomenclature—and of mythology as well.  Because he is such a good writer, Bernhardt does this admirably.  I may be prejudiced in his favor since he begins the first chapter with a section called “Inside the Herbarium.”  He starts with a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphosis in which the poet quotes the one-eyed mythic monster the Cyclops on the fruits growing in the garden and why it’s impossible to give precise scientific names to some of them, particularly the plums.  It would be necessary to have more information, and ideally a voucher, a herbarium specimen of the plant cited.  That’s Bernhardt’s clever segue into the importance of scientific names as the only way to be sure of what a writer is really talking about.

Next comes, not surprisingly, a section on Linnaean nomenclature, where Bernhardt not only explains the basis of binomial nomenclature and why it was so needed, but also describes how Carl Linnaeus is responsible for so many of the mythological plant names.  Linnaeus was not exactly a new Adam, although he has sometimes been described this way.  While every scientific plant name used today dates from 1753, the date of publication of his Species Plantarum, or later, he didn’t begin with a totally clean slate.  He adapted many plant names that had long been in use, which is why names in 16th and 17th-century herbals often seem familiar.  However, he still had to supply many new genus names, and for this he chose to rely on Greco-Roman mythology.

Where plant names come from is the subject of Bernhardt’s second chapter.  He begins with the easiest category, plants named after people, real people not mythological ones.  Some genus and particularly species names are given to honor a noted botanist, though at times the honor is bestowed on a statesman, a spouse, or even a celebrity:  Lady Gaga has a fern genus named after her.  Also common are species names derived from geographical locations where the plant was found.  Then there are the descriptive names, telling something about the plant, such as that it has glossy leaves or a large flower.  While these may be used for either genera or species, most classical names designate genera.

How did Linnaeus choose names from myth?  The answers provide the heart of Bernhardt’s book.  After the two introductory chapters, he starts each of the following with a brief exposition of a classical myth, including the names of the characters and what happens to them.  Then he describes how these names have ended up associated with plants.  He begins with the Greek creation myth related by the poet Hesiod in which day and night are given names, with night called Nyx.  This explains Nyctaginia or night blooming flower and Nyctocalos, beautiful at night.  In some cases the names have less straightforward allusions, as with the banana genus Musa.  This is an Asian plant, but it was Arab traders who brought it to the West, and Linnaeus is referring to that connection in the name.  Also, Muslims call bananas trees of paradise, so Linnaeus named the common banana of the time Musa paradisiaca and even wrote a book about it in 1736.  In regaling the reader with these stories, Bernhardt notes that some of the most intriguing names are no longer botanically accurate because of nomenclatural changes.  Since many of these names were given by Linnaeus, it stands to reason that over the years more and more of them will fade due to name changes for taxonomic reasons, despite their beauty and ingenuity.

This is a book that is best dipped into rather than read straight through.  It’s extremely rich in names, stories, and plant information, and might cause intellectual indigestion if experienced in high doses.  However, for anyone who loves plants, it’s definitely worth reading because it fosters an appreciation for botanical nomenclature which often seems unwieldy to say the least.  Bernhardt’s book may even drive you to other sources on the subject such as Stearn’s Botanical Latin (1992) and Lorraine Harrison’s Latin for Gardeners (2012).


Bernhardt, P. (1989). Wily Violets and Underground Orchids. New York: William Morrow.

Bernhardt, P. (1993). Natural Affairs: A Botanist Looks at the Attachments between Plants and People. New York: Villard.

Bernhardt, P. (1999). The Rose’s Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bernhardt, P. (2008). Gods and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Harrison, L. (2012). Latin for Gardener’s. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Linnaeus, C. (1736). Musa Cliffortiana. Leiden, The Netherlands.

Stearn, W. T. (1992). Botanical Latin (4th ed.). Portland, OR: Timber Press.


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