Like most Americans, I gathered with my family on Monday night for a lavish meal to celebrate National Poinsettia Day. After dinner, as is the custom*, we set our empty terra-cotta planters in a circle around the new bag of potting soil on the living room floor, the children grouped round, and I recited the story of the poinsettia.
It began as usual with a brief history of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, but as I reached the part in the story when, in 1828, Ambassador Poinsett sent clippings of a beautiful plant he’d found in southern Mexico to his home in Charleston, South Carolina, I wondered how many other flowers and flowering plants are named after people.
Turns out there are quite a lot. And while so many of us are dealing with snow, rainy gray skies, and politics, I figured a few moments fixating on flowers might bring some much-needed sunshine into all our lives:
Charles Plumier (1646-1704) was botanist to Louis XIV of France and author of Nova Plantarum Americanarum Genera. Among his many journeys, he made three botanical expeditions to the West Indies. He named the begonia in honor of Michel Bégon (1638-1710), the French governor of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). There are nearly 1,800 species of begonia.
The Father of Modern Taxonomy Carl Linnaeus himself named the camellia after George Joseph Kamel (1661-1706), a Moravian Jesuit missionary who did botanical studies in the Philippines and who described a species of the camellia in his work.
As much as we would like the flower to have been named after Roald Dahl, the dahlia — Mexico’s national flower since 1963 — was named in honor of Anders Dahl (1751-1789), a Swedish botanist and student of Linnaeus.
The forsythia was originally categorized as a lilac and introduced to Europe in 1833. Botanists soon realized it did not fit in with the lilacs, and so it was renamed after Scottish botanist and horticulturist William Forsyth (1737-1804), a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society. (Fun fact: I am descended from Forsyths, though I’m not a direct descendant of William.)
Catalogued and named by Charles Plumier, this genus of flowering shrubs and trees (as well as the color) are named in honor of 16th-century botanist Leonhart Fuchs. Remembering the source of this eponym is key to spelling it correctly — just tack an -ia on the end.
Carl Linnaeus named this flower after Scottish botanist Alexander Garden (1730-1791) — imagine that, a botanist named Garden! — who spent most of his short life in Charleston, South Carolina. The gardenia is a member of the coffee family.
The Flemish Mathias de l’Obel (or Matthaeus Lobelius, 1538-1616), for whom the lobelia is named, was physician and botanist to both William of Orange and James I. He is credited with the first attempt to index plants according to their natural affinities instead of their medicinal uses.
Another coinage of Charles Plumier, the magnolia is an ancient genus named for Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), a French botanist whose work was critical to developing the current botanical scheme of classification.
The genus Plumeria is named after Charles Plumier (mentioned earlier), who found and catalogued the flower during his expeditions into the New World during the 17th century. You might know plumeria more commonly as frangipani, which is also an eponym; it was named after Muzio Frangipane, a 16th-century Italian marquess who concocted a plumeria-scented perfume.
A parasitic plant that proves that flowers don’t necessarily have to be beautiful, the rafflesia is named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), leader of the expedition through Sumatra that discovered the plant in 1818. He was also the founder of Singapore and would go on to become a founder and the first president of the Zoological Society of London and the London Zoo.
English botanist and zoologist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1849) said that he named the genus Wisteria in honor of Caspar Wistar (1761-1818), a Philadelphia physician and teacher who introduced many innovations into medical instruction. But because of the word’s spelling, some believe it was covertly named after Nuttall’s friend Charles Jones Wister Sr. Consequently, various sources list the genus as both wisteria and wistaria.
Carl Linnaeus named these North American perennials in honor of Johann Gottfried Zinn (1727-1759), German anatomist and botanist who also lent his name to the anatomical terms annulus of Zinn and zonule of Zinn, both parts of the eye.