The Name Game

By Cathy Wilkinson Barash

Etymology (the history of a word; tracing its development and transmission from one language to another) is fascinating. And nowhere more so than in the names of herbs -- culinary, medicinal, dye, and other useful plants. Many herb names (botanic and/or common) have their roots in Latin or Greek. This often reflects its original purpose, which may be quite different from the modern application.

The common name of a plant can vary from region to region and country to country while the botanic name is the same throughout the world-only the accent varies. Of course, what can be tricky is that the derivation of the moniker, such as bloom time, may hold true in the region where it was named, but varies in other climates and latitudes. For clarity, the best-known common name as well as the botanic name are included here so that we are all focused on the same plant.

Carl von Linne, the Swedish botanist (1707-1778), who introduced botanical nomenclature (all those Latin words which can seem like Greek to many of us), even gave himself a Latin name --Carolus Linnaeus. One of his projects was a planted floral clock. He included chicory (Cichorium intybus) because its blue flowers reliably open and close their petals at the same time every day. Four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) owe their appellation to him, as in Sweden they open at four o’clock in the afternoon. However, most American gardeners cannot synchronize their watches to these fragrant, evening bloomers, as they open much later in the day-generally at dusk. Four o’clocks are not herbs -- although the loose definition of an herb is a useful plant. However, the four o’clocks in my garden that are getting ready to bloom begged to be included; would you dare to jinx a plant?

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is derived from the Latin calens meaning "the first day of each month," since it can bloom every month of the year in mild regions. Another common name, pot marigold, came from the fact that calendulas were often grown in containers, and marygold -- the name early Christians gave it as it bloomed at the time of all the festivals that celebrate the Virgin Mary. Calendula’s culinary roots date back to ancient Rome when the use of saffron (the powdered stigmas of the exotic saffron crocus, Crocus sativus) was a sign of wealth and power. The common people couldn’t afford to buy "pure gold," but they discovered that powdered calendula petals were an excellent culinary substitute. Hence, another common name -- poor man’s saffron -- as chopped calendula petals (fresh or dried) infuse food with the same golden color and slightly acrid flavor as the expensive saffron.

Sage is derived from the Latin salvare, meaning "to save." For centuries, sage was reputed to have great curative and healing properties. The old Latin proverb, Cur moriatur homo, ciu calvia crescit in horto?" ("Why should a man die while sage grows in his garden?"), pays homage to the high esteem in which the herb was held.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) gets its common name from the Latin nasus for "nose" and torquere, which translates "to twist." Nasturtiums certainly are nose twisters, although whether this refers to the fragrance of the plant or the peppery quality of the leaves and edible flowers that can twitch the nose is uncertain.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and its Allium relatives have been honored herbs for millennia. The botanic species name is derived from the Greek schoinos, meaning "rush," and prason for "leek." Indeed, the hollow narrow stems do resemble a stand of rushes and have the same oniony scent and flavor as their cousin, the leek.

Borage is likely a derivation from the Latin burra meaning "a shaggy garment," referring to the rough foliage of this lovely herb once believed to have great powers. According to Pliny the Elder (noted Roman scientist, 23-79 A.D.), it brought happiness and joy wherever it grew. In Gerard’s Herball, published in 1597, Gerard quotes the belief carried down from the Greeks and Romans, "I, Borage, bring always Courage."

Pliny named the pungent herb Rosmarinus, a Latin derivation of ros maris meaning "sea dew," for its native habitat -- the rocky coasts of the Mediterranean. Purportedly, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis -- the word officinalis is a nod to a plant’s medicinal use) can restore memory. Its role has varied over the millennia-to bring good luck, fend off witches, and disinfect the air.

The botanic name Origanum vulgaris and the common name oregano (also known as wild marjoram) have the same Greek roots. Oros is "mountain" and ganos means "joy." The purplish-red tufts of flowers are indeed a joy to behold-spectacular on their native Mediterranean hillsides. Such a sight must evoke a smile; historically, oregano has been a symbol of happiness. In both ancient Greece and Rome, the bride and groom wore wreaths of oregano to symbolize the joy of their union.

Dill derives its name from the Old Norse word dilla, meaning "to lull." The oil derived from the seed has long been used to soothe colicky babies and settle adult digestive upsets. Ancient Romans wove the yellow flowers into wreaths that served a double duty in their banquet halls. The pretty decorations had a unique aroma, which was at the same time fresh and spicy. Perhaps we would be better off using dill flowers than electric "plug-in" air fresheners for our homes.

Technically speaking, dill seeds are not an herb; they are a spice. Generally an herb comes from the leaves of a temperate-climate, herbaceous (non-woody) plant, while a spice comes from the bark or seeds of a tropical tree. So it follows that dillweed (leaves) is an herb, while the seed is a spice. Dill is not the only herb to have a dual personality. Mustard does too-the greens are a culinary herb, while the seeds are the spice that is ground into the pungent paste most commonly slathered on hot dogs. In the case of cilantro or coriander (Coriandrum sativum), the same plant has two different names, depending on what you harvest. Cilantro leaves are a popular herb used in Mexican and Asian cuisines, while coriander seeds -- the spice -- are most popular in Middle Eastern and Indian cookery.

Herbs continue to increase in popularity. Novice and expert gardeners realize there is a vast amount to learn about herbs, spices and the difference between the two.

© 2004, National Garden Bureau, Inc.

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