Stink Davie, Witch Gowan, Doon-head Clock: Name that plant

Watching the host of gardening programmes on the TV, presenters are always very good at the naming of plants. They like to give you the ‘official’ Latin names – technically more correct – but perhaps not the names that the plants are commonly known as.

A new book by Dr Gregory J Kenicer  explores the brilliant and often amusing ways in which language has influenced plant names through the ages.

If you heard someone talking about stink Davie, witch gowan or doon-head clock would you know what they meant?

a large mound of flowering dandelions in the bay

These are just three of the many different names found across Scotland for the humble dandelion. In his book published at the end of the month by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, botanist Dr Gregory J Kenicer explores the brilliant, descriptive and often amusing ways in which language has influenced plant names through the ages.

Scottish Plant Names is a small book of wondrous plant names presented in dictionary form and covers a variety of flower, fungi and mosses. From the almost completely forgotten Pictish, to the North East dialect Doric, Scotland’s vocabulary is as varied as its flora. Released on Thursday 22 June, this book delves in to the botany of language, and although the focus is very much on Scots, Gaelic and English, the influences of many other tongues can be seen throughout. 

Beautifully illustrated by Hazel France, artist and horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scottish Plant Names depicts some of the plants as they appear in the wild, and other drawings are a literal take on some of the weird and wonderful names that they have been given throughout history.

bluebells of different hues in Happy valley
Bluebells in Happy Valley Image Credit Martin Laird

Marsh-marigold as ‘demon water-horse’s shoe’, foxgloves as ‘witches thimbles’, bluebell as ‘crows toes’, and the rose as ‘itchy coos’, some names are descriptive, while others speak of the use of the plant and some are poetic and poignant. Some names have religious origins or roots in wider folklore, whilst others are very recent inventions. Scottish Plant Names demonstrates the power of observing, classifying and naming, and gives us an insight into the past, people’s relationships with plants and ways of looking at the world. 

Dr Greg J Kenicer in a wooded environment

Speaking about the publication of Scottish Plant Names, Greg Kenicer said,

“It has been a joy to research this book. The diversity and evolution of plant names is intricate, so delving in to the etymology and uncovering the stories behind them has been fascinating.

“Over the years, plants have been named in a variety of ways – from the simple changes in spelling from existing names to naming for similarity – for example the slender, curving stems of bramble are one of several plants called ‘leddy’s garters’ in Scots, or ‘lady’s garters’ in English. I came across some scurrilous names in my research too, often with political undertones For example, there are several smelly plants called ‘stinking Billy’ in ‘honour’ of William of Orange.

“Names are very powerful things. They are a crucial part of the way that we see and classify the world around us. Humans instinctively group things, compare them and identify them, but it is only by giving these things a name that we can truly communicate them to others.  These common names are wonderfully varied even across short geographic distances, hence we use scientific names to help keep things standard wherever you are in the world.” 

cover of the book Scottish Plant Names with illustrations of some of the plants

Scottish Plant Names  is published by The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh on June 22 and is available on pre-order now at

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