One usually thinks of botanists as a sober lot, given to spending hours counting leaf hairs under a microscope. So, it may come as a surprise that some of them seem to have a sense of humor, and a rather ribald one at that. And they even manage to pass their humor on to future generations by naming plants suggestively … and once a plant is named, that will be its name pretty much forever, even if it’s connotations might upset some people’s sensitivities.
In dissecting botanical humor, it helps to know a bit of Latin and Greek. If so, some plant names come across as quite funny.
Onopordum acanthium: this is the famous Scotch thistle. And the botanical name seems quite harmless, until you study it, because Onopordum comes from the Greek for … donkey fart. Apparently, donkeys like to eat it and the end result is both sonorous and malodorous.
Ferula assa-foetida: remaining in the donkey domain, this plant’s epithet certainly sounds like it means stinky ass. That could refer to a donkey, don’t you think? (Or something else!) However, “assa” is actually the name of a gum the plant gives off. And yes, it is foul-smelling, a fact also revealed by the common name: devil’s dung.
Amorphophallus titanum: it doesn’t take a university degree to get this one! The name means, of course, giant misshapen penis and it was at first known as the penis plant or the corpse flower (for its bad smell). Sir Richard Attenborough felt the botanical name far too offensive to use on television and coined the less evocative term “titan arum” to describe the plant.
Phallus impudicus: since we’re talking about phalluses, the common stinkhorn deserves a mention. True enough, it’s not a plant, but rather a mushroom and so I really shouldn’t include it, but … it’s such of great name!
Pinus rigida: this is the botanical name of the pitch pine. It’s not the only plant surnamed rigida or erecta, meaning not what you think, but a plant with an upright growth habit, but the proximity of the word Pinus makes it that much more suggestive!
Orchis: Most people have heard at some point that orchids derive their name from testicles. Orchis mascula, the first orchid studied, way back in the time of the Greeks, bears a pair of rounded, underground tubers that scientists seemed to find quite suggestive. No need to dig far here: Orchis simply means testicle in Greek. So each time you say orchid, you’re really saying, “balls!”
Bifora testiculata: with an epithet like that, this weedy annual is bound to have something ballsy about it… and that would be the inflated seed capsules, always borne two by two. Its English common name is the mundane European bishop, but the French are more frank about the whole business and call it “plante à testicules.”
Mammillaria: the name, of course, refers to the form of the rounded, bulging tubercles that cover the cactus thus named, very much like … uh, breasts. Women’s breasts, to be more specific. There are many species, sometimes known, fairly politely, as nipple cacti.
But the names boob cactus and titty cactus are usually reserved for Myrtillocactus geometrizans ‘Fukurokuryuzinboku’, a nearly spineless cactus whose tubercles look even more like breasts.
Solanum mammosum: Mammillaria was not the only plant to titillate botanists with its female attributes. The appropriately named nipple fruit or titty fruit (Solanum mamosum) also has quite a rack.
Crassula vaginatus: there are actually many plant species bearing epithets like vaginale, vaginatum and vaginatus, all names referring to a vaginalike sheath. Most botanists were men, so we shouldn’t be surprised they’d think of “that.”
Vanilla: none too well known is the fact the word Vanilla, the orchid that gives us the spice of the same name, is derived from the Spanish vainilla for little vagina. Who knew?
Clitoria ternatea: this member of the pea family has a rather distinctive flower shape. You’d wonder how that name got through the censors back in the 18thcentury, but it did. In fact, Carl Linnaeus himself, the father of taxonomy, dirty old man that he was, chose the name. If you look at the flower, it’s pretty obvious why!
Coprosma: You really have to know your Greek to understand that Coprosma means “smells like shit” (I kid you not!) due to the odor of the crushed leaves of some species. One species of Coprosma, C. repens, is currently making the rounds under the more subdued name of mirror plant.
There’s nothing scatological or lewd about the following five botanical names, but they are certainly surprising!
Hebejeebie trifida: What a fun name!
Ilex vomitoria: This plant, the Yaupon holly, is poisonous, thus provoking the suggested vomiting. The rather disgusting name hasn’t prevented it from becoming a fairly popular garden plant in the mild climates where it can be grown.
Lobelia siphilitica: The great blue lobelia came by its unfortunate name not because it caused syphilis, but rather because it was once used to treat it.
Narcissus: Did you know that Narcissus means narcotic, due to the plant’s narcotic effects?
Spigelia genuflexa: This Brazilian plant gets its unusual name from the fact that it bends down and plants its own seeds as if it were genuflecting! How cool is that?
Sometimes, It’s All in the Pronuncation
The following names are perfectly legitimate, totally serious botanical names given, I’m sure, with no secondary intention whatsoever. However, with a bit of willful mispronunciation, you just can’t help but laugh!
- Narcissus assoanus
- Penstemon whippleanus
- Rubus cockburnianus
- Senecio herrianus
- And just about any Latin name that ends in –anus (and there are many of them!)
- Silybum mariana
- Erica canaliculata (one of the best ones: try pronouncing it until you get it!)
There are lots of very suggestive common names, but unlike botanical names, they only work in English.
- Avocado (Persea americana) comes from a Latin American native name for testicles
- Black man’s willie (Rhodochiton atrosangineus)
- Butt nut (Lodoicea maldivica)
- Cockhold herb (Bidens connata)
- Cuckoo pint (Aruma maculatum) (pint is an old English word for penis)
- Family jewels, aka hairy balls and monkey balls (Gomphrocarpus physocarpus)
- Horny wonder, aka condom plant (Ceropegia ampliata)
- Hot lips or hooker’s lips (Psychotria elata) (labios de mujer et labios de puta in Spanish)
- Horse’s balls (Tabernaemontana donnell-smithii) (huevos de caballo, cojones de burro and cojón de mico in Spanish)
- Knobweed (Hyptis capitata)
- Lady of the night (Brassovola nodosa)
- Naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna)
- Naked lady in a bath (Dicentra spectabilis, now Lamprocapnos spectabilis)
- Nipplewort (lapsana communis)
- Penis cactus (Trichocereus bridgesii monstruosa)
Penis passion fruit (Passiflora quadrangularis ‘Erotica’). bfbinvestigations.blogspot.com
- Penis passion fruit (Passiflora quadrangularis ‘Erotica’)
- Shagbark (Carya ovata)
- Shaggy soldier (Galinsoga quadriradiata)
- Sticky willie (Galium aparine)
- Stiffcock (Diospyros crassenevis)
- Stinking willie (Trillium erectum)
There are tons of suggestive cultivar names. If you create a new hybrid, you get to name it and some people have dirtier minds than others:
- Actea ‘Black Negligee’
- Capsicum annuum ‘Red Peter’
- Hosta ‘Hanky Panky’
- Hosta ‘Outhouse Delight’
- Hosta ‘Striptease’
- Iris ‘Erotic Touch’
- Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazzen Hussy’
- Rosa ‘Golden Showers’
- Rosa ‘Sexy Rexy’
- Saintpaulia ‘Afterglo’
Add Your Own!
The above lists are far from exhaustive! If you have any fun—and suggestive!—plant names to offer, add them in Leave a Comment below.