Names picked straight from the garden

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page -

Ev­ery year, publi­ca­tion of the top baby names for the pre­vi­ous year pro­vokes a flurry of news­pa­per ar­ti­cles. For the keen gar­dener, per­haps the most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pect of th­ese lists lies in the as­ton­ish­ing fall and rise in the pop­u­lar­ity of plants and flow­ers as names for baby girls.

The trend can be fol­lowed on the web­site of the Of­fice for Na­tional Statis­tics, which lists the top 100 girls’ names for ev­ery 10th year from 1904 to 1994, and then for ev­ery year from 1996 on­wards.

The Ed­war­dian era was the hey­day of flower names for girls, with Ivy, Vi­o­let, Lily, Rose, Daisy, May, Iris and Olive all in the top 100 in 1904 and 1914, although none made the top 10 — Mary was top in both years.

There­after it was down­hill for most of the cen­tury, with the nadir in 1974, when the top 100 con­tained just a sin­gle plant name: Heather.

I don’t have in­for­ma­tion for ev­ery year, but I wouldn’t be sur­prised if some­time in the Six­ties or Sev­en­ties there was at least one year when there were no flower names at all in the top 100.

Cu­ri­ously, how­ever, af­ter 1974 things be­gan to look up, with three flower names in the top 100 in 1984, eight in 1994 and nine in 1996. In fact the last six years have achieved some­thing the Ed­war­dians never man­aged, which is a flower name in the top 10, in­deed the same one in all those years: Lily. If we were to count Lilly as a vari­a­tion on Lily, the com­bined to­tal would have come top in 2011, by a wide mar­gin.

Not far be­hind Lily is an­other Ed­war­dian favourite, Daisy. Both re-en­tered the lists af­ter a long ab­sence in 1994 and have risen in pop­u­lar­ity ever since, Daisy reach­ing its high­est rank (15th) in 2010. Rose (and its vari­ant Rosie) have also seen a ma­jor re­cov­ery in re­cent years.

The news on other Ed­war­dian favourites, how­ever, is grim. There has been no re­nais­sance for Ivy, Vi­o­let or Olive, last seen in 1934, or Iris, not seen since 1944. It is hard to say why.

Maybe Olive never re­cov­ered from Pop­eye’s fickle and bad-tem­pered squeeze, Olive Oyl. Per­haps suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions have been scarred by Just Wil­liam’s neme­sis Vi­o­let Elizabeth Bott (“I’ll thcream and thcream ’till I’m thick”), or still have night­mares about Ena Sharples’s (played by Vi­o­let Car­son) hair net and milk stout in Corona­tion Street. Olive’s de­cline is sur­pris­ing when you con­sider that a vari­a­tion, Olivia, came top in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Re­cent top 100s are pep­pered with flower names: 10 in 2011. So what are they? Poppy, Jas­mine and Holly (or Hol­lie) are the other pop­u­lar names in re­cent years. All three first ap­peared in the mid-Nineties and have been pop­u­lar ever since, es­pe­cially Holly, which reached the high­est rank for a flower name be­fore the me­te­oric rise of Lily, reach­ing 12th in 2002. All th­ese are, of course, English names. Latin plant names are rare in the top 100, with only three hav­ing ever made an ap­pear­ance (five if we in­clude Iris and Daphne, which both dou­ble as Latin and English names, and last ap­peared in 1944).

Veron­ica (speed­well) crept in at 83 in 1934, rose to 52 in 1944 and fell to 98 in 1954, cor­re­spond­ing per­fectly to the ca­reer of Hol­ly­wood femme fa­tale Veron­ica Lake. Melissa (lemon balm) ar­rived in 1984, reached its high­est rank (41) in 1994, and then slowly de­clined in pop­u­lar­ity and was last seen in 2004. Phoebe (a tree in the lau­rel fam­ily) ap­peared in 1996 and has been pop­u­lar since, show­ing (I guess) the con­tin­u­ing in­flu­ence of Friends.

De­spite the oc­ca­sional celebrity en­dorse­ment for Prunella and Nigella (the lat­ter a nod to fa­ther Nigel Law­son rather than to love-in-a-mist), no other Latin name ap­pears in any top 100, sug­gest­ing (to me any­way) that Latin names are rather un­der­em­ployed as girls’ names. Is there any­one out there called Ra­monda or Azara, and if not, why not?

Fi­nally, do flow­ers have any fu­ture as names for boys? I don’t think so. Af­ter all, Nar­cis­sus was a bloke, and look what hap­pened to him.

Ken Thompson is a plant bi­ol­o­gist with a keen in­ter­est in the sci­ence of gar­den­ing. He writes and lec­tures ex­ten­sively. His lat­est book is Do We Need Pan­das? The Un­com­fort­able Truth

About Bio­di­ver­sity

Flower names: more pop­u­lar now than ever – Daisy (Lowe), Nigella, Vi­o­let Elizabeth, Phoebe, Lily (both Cole and Allen), Olive, Holly (Wil­loughby) and Prunella have all had a moment in the spot­light

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