The Five Worst Plant Names in the Universe

There are days when I ponder the deeper questions: Why is there evil in the world? Why is it that in our house 1-2 of my socks lose their mates in the laundry every single week (and I’m the one who does the laundry)?

That comes to an average of 78 socks a year – where do they all go?

Also, why are there so many plants, including some very nice plants, that have such awful names?

The scientists at Stanford University’s Institute for Post-Modern Botanical Studies (IPMBS) have been researching that last question. They have not yet gotten to the causes of awful plant names.

Senior researchers from the IPMBS.
Senior researchers from the IPMBS.

However, using the most advanced technology, they have been able to measure plant name awfulness. With their pioneering technique (patent pending), they have identified the five most awful plant names in the universe. So here they are, ranked in order of least to most awful.

(Trigger Warning: This blog post may be upsetting to younger or more sensitive readers.)

Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart
Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart.

Lamprocapnos spectabilis. I have written about this before, but the name really bugs me – and, of course, the great minds at the IPMBS. What is generally called Bleeding Heart used to be Dicentra spectabilis. Now Dicentra is a nice name, it rolls off the tongue with elegance: Dicentra … But of course the taxonomists had to replace Dicentra with Lamprocapnos, which is clunky and clumsy and almost hurts your mouth when you say it.

Ilex vomitoria. Bad enough that Yaupon Holly got this name at all, what’s worse is that the name is actually a libel. Native Americans made a tea from the leaves and stems for a purification ceremony which included vomiting. Europeans incorrectly thought that Yaupon caused the vomiting. It didn’t. But for some reason the taxonomists don’t consider this to be sufficient reason to come up with a better name. Yaupon has abundant red berries and is common in parts of the Southern US.

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Photo from
Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Photo from

Lobelia siphilitica. Great Blue Lobelia is a lovely perennial for moist soils. At one time it was thought (wrongly) to be a cure for syphilis. Now that we know, couldn’t they change the specific name to something more seemly and, you know, factual? The genus name honors the Flemish physician and botanist Matthias de l’Obel – but in this instance the honor seems rather hollow.

Amorphophallus titanus. This name means “giant misshapen penis”. Common names include Giant Titan Arum, which seems redundant, but whatever. You can actually buy them from Plant Delights Nursery, here’s a link. PDN warns that only “passionate and very serious plant NUTS” should buy this plant. What more is there to say?

And finally, the absolute worst plant name in the universe:

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky Winky’. ‘Pinky Winky’? Couldn’t they have left this plant with even a shred of dignity?

Are there any other plant names that you would nominate for worst in the universe?

66 Comments on “The Five Worst Plant Names in the Universe

  1. Dare I add…. “Hellebore”. Crossing that one off the family list of possible girls’ names!

  2. We’ve all had our little rants about the wizards in charge, who, seemingly willfully, keep changing the names we have studiously committed to memory so that they may trip liltingly from the tongue. None quite so creatively and entertainingly as this.

  3. You’ve picked some good ones. Can’t think of any really bad examples right now, but I do think Pulmonaria should be given a prettier name that doesn’t sound like a lung disease!

  4. As a child working in the backyard, I never understood what was “dandy” or even “lion”-like about a “dandelion.”

    And also from my childhood. A boy showed up at school with a swollen nose, and his teacher asked what happened. Boy: “I smelled a brose.” Teacher: “There’s no B in rose.” Boy: “There was in this one.”

    • Yes, that’s a good one. I think taxonomists need twelve year old boys as partners when they name plants. If the boy snickers, the taxonomist needs to come up with a different name.

      • Great list, Jason. Another possibility is that most taxonomists have a case of arrested development and are, in fact, twelve-year-old boys at heart.

  5. Sarcococca is one of the worst. It is NOT pronounced sar-COCK-o-ca as it appears but sar-COKE-co-cah as it doesn’t appear. But of course I had to learn that the hard way in front of a male horticulturalist.

  6. These had me laughing!!! Gosh, there truly are some dreadful names for sure.
    I seem to recall a plant, a cactus, that is called Mother-in-law’s cushion….xxx

    • Yes! Also known as Golden Barrel Cactus (a much more polite name). And then there is mother-in-laws’ tongue, a plant with long very pointed leaves.

  7. False Dandelion (Krigia biflora) Who the heck would ever buy a plant named False Dandelion? I call it by its more obscure name ‘Cynthia’. But don’t ask for Cynthia at a nursery–they won’t have a clue/

    • I haven’t heard of either name but clearly Cynthia is far better. Someone in the Marketing Department should get right on that.

  8. I don’t know if it could be called one of the worst names but “bad man’s plaything” for yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has always made me smile. It’s also called devil’s nettle and devil’s plaything, so clearly someone wanted people to stay away from this plant.
    Thanks for the laugh!

  9. Maybe not awful, but awkward to discuss with my teens was pitch pine, Pinus rigida. No matter that it’s pronounced Pie-nus, they honed right in on that one, then searched for other ones: P. pungens, P. contorta, P. discolor, P. flexilis. It was quite the discussion.

  10. I loved the picture of the esteemed researchers at Stanford. LOL!

    Well. I have always disliked Hydrangea paniculata ‘Bulk’ for hydrangea ‘Quick Fire’. The common name, though its origin evident, of pigsqueak for bergenia is not good. Plants without common names which are charming and should be more widely planted are difficult, too

    Yo do realize I suggested the name for a new daylily, which is being released this year, ‘Happy Days Are Here Again”.

    Does that make me one of “those” people?

    • ‘Bulk’ sounds like a nickname for a mob enforcer. I actually like ‘Happy Days are Here Again’. It’s an upbeat song, obviously, and I appreciate the association with FDR.

      • Speaking of “Happy Days” prompts the thought that someone, somewhere, really should have named something ‘The Fonz’ — but what sort of plant would be appropriate? The only thing I can think of that resembles a black leather jacket is Ophiogon planiscapus v. nigrescens… but its’ hair would be too messy…..

  11. I actually love the names Lobelia siphilitica and Amorphophallus titanus! But the one that gets me is replacing Aster with Symphyotricum.

    • I thought of mentioning Symphyotrichum. Perhaps there should be a rule that replacement names cannot have more syllables than the original.

  12. You missed the doubly bad Lobelia siphillitica ‘Blue Peter.’ Also Rhododendron ‘Blue Tit’ (I can’t put that on no Mother’s Day card) and Sagina.

  13. Ha! Yes, that change to Lamprocapnos from Dicentra really bugs me, too. As does the switch from Cimicifuga to Actaea, although the latter is easier to pronounce. It would help if the Asclepias species weren’t called “weeds,” although historically it makes sense how that happened. Fun post!

  14. Because there’s no quasi-Latin or Greek root to soften the edge and lend the thing a bit of mystery, variety names definitely rank amongst the worst offenders for me, your “Red Neck Girl,” “Mike’s Fuzzy Wuzzy,” that poor salvia Plant Delights thought it would be clever to deem “Domestic Violence.” Most of the common names of New World plants, when rendered in European languages, have such a recent provenance that they seem arbitrary and superfluous; do most people go around calling mammilaria “fishhook cactuses,” anyway? Is there any compelling reason why we insist on having a common name that we’ll never reliably or consistently use because they don’t work inter-culturally and -phonologically? Also, when people inquire about the availability of Mother-in-Law’s Tongue. Blergh.

    A horticulture instructor had an interesting mnemonic for the specific epithet in Araucaria bidwillii: she thought of Will Smith’s debut solo album, “Big Willy Style.”

  15. Selenicereus anthonyanus. While it is easy to remember Anthony’s anus, I’d really rather not.

  16. Great post, and the replies you have received add to the amusement. well done.
    What to make of Ligustrum vulgare? For some reason, vulgar privates, helped me remember the latin name of Privet.

  17. I agree Jason. I do love lobelia as well and don’t its ‘full name’. I can add Vaccinium vitis-idaea that actually is lingonberries. What does it have with vaccine?

  18. I didn’t know about Dicentra not beind Dicentra anymore, and the new names reminds me of a Lamprey Eel which is a most disgusting fish. I hear now they are changing the botanical name of Coleus from Solenostemon to Plectranthus, and I am only bummed about it because it has taken me three years to spell Solenostemon correctly.

    • The name does make me think of eels. I don’t use a lot of Coleus so I don’t feel as personally wounded as I do with some of the other name changes.

  19. Some of the worst plant names have been given to Hemerocallis. Some breeders seem to have an obsession with underwear. I don’ t think I could grow a Hydrangea called Pinky Winky, but I certainly wouldn’ t grow a Daylily called ‘ Droopy Drawers’ or ‘ Pink Panties’.
    Great post.

    • ‘Droopy Drawers’ and ‘Pink Panties’ sound like names Monty Python would come up with. Actually, I do recall that they were partial to shrubbery.

  20. Omigosh, I am still peeved about them changing a lovely name like “dicentra” to something that sounds like a seahorse installing new lighting fixtures…! But I think one of the worst cv names I’ve ever seen is Hosta ‘Outhouse Delight’ — an outhouse being the American term for an outdoor privy, so I guess if the breeder had been in Australia it would have been named ‘Dunny Delight’, or ‘Bog Delight’ (a bit confusing, that!) in the UK?? I mean, seriously: Can you think of anything “delightful” about an outdoor loo?!?!

    • I wonder what would have inspired the name ‘Outhouse Delight’? I’m not fond of Hostas, though, so I can’t get too agitated about it.

  21. It was always hard to tell rue anemone (Anemonella) from false rue anemone (Isopyrum), but now the former is Thalictrum and the latter Enemion. And I still have not forgiven them for changing from the apply named toothwort (Dentaria) to Cardamene. Now adding insult to injury as curator of an herbarium, the specimens must be re-filed with markers left under the old name.

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