Sunday Quiz – What’s In a Name?

Ivy (Hedera helix) – ‘helix’ means ‘twisted’ or ‘spiral’

Dear Readers, a lot of people get very hot under the collar on the subject of ‘Latin’ names for plants and animals – there are regularly rows on the many Facebook groups that I’m involved in when someone quotes the scientific name for a plant or insect.

“What’s the common name?” people ask. “And why do you lot need to be so snobby?”

Well, because a lot of creatures don’t have common names, especially insects. And also, if you call an insect a ‘daddy-long-legs’, you might mean a cellar spider (Pholcus phalangoides) or a cranefly (Tipula maxima) or a harvestman (Phalangium opilio) according to where you live in the country or the world. So using the ‘Latin’ (more specifically the binomial name) means that you all know what you’re talking about.

Don’t get me wrong, I love vernacular names for plants and animals – they tell you a lot about the relationship between humans and the natural world, and they are often extremely local, as a glance at Roy Vickery’s Folk Flora or Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica will reveal. There’s room for both precision and imagination in this world, and, at the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, I sometimes wish that we could all just get along.

Anyhow! This brings us to our quiz. And as I have just tested positive for Covid (no surprise after my husband has been coughing and spluttering for a week) I am going to go for a quiz that’s easy for me to prepare this week :-). Below are twelve common scientific names for plants, and an example of each. Can you tell me what the ‘Latin’ name is telling us about the plant? You can choose from the list of possible meanings below.

So, if you think species name 1, Officinalis, means ‘Creeping’, your answer is 1)A)

As usual, answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time next Friday please (18th March), and the results will be posted on Saturday 19th March. I will ‘disappear’ your answers as soon as I see them.

Species Name

  1. Officinalis (Example – Common Fumitory, Fumaria officinalis)
  2. Verna (Example – Lesser Celandine, Ficaria verna)
  3. Rupestre (Example – Reflexed Stonecrop, Sedum rupestre)
  4. Sativa (Example – Common Vetch, Vicia sativa)
  5. Pratense (Example – Red Clover, Trifolium pratense)
  6. Sylvestris (Example – Narrow-leaved Everlasting Pea, Lathyrus sylvestris)
  7. Repens (Example – Common Restharrow, Onanis repens)
  8. Palustre/palustris (Example – Grass of Parnassus, Parnassia palustris)
  9. Corniculata (Example – Procumbent Yellow Sorrel, Oxalis corniculata)
  10. Lutea (Example – Mountain Pansy, Viola lutea)
  11. Maculatum (Example – Cuckoo-pint, Arum maculatum)
  12. Hirsutum (Example – Great Willowherb, Epilobium hirsutum)


A. Creeping
B. Found in marshes and bogs
C. Horned
D. Hairy
E. Of the spring
F. Found on cultivated land
G. Yellow
H. Found in forests/woods
I. Spotted
J. A traditional healing plant
K. Wall/rock-loving
L. Meadow-loving


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