Wood on Words: Getting to the root of flowers

Barry Wood

Gertrude Stein famously wrote in 1913, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” but is an anemone always an anemone?”

Are impatiens really more restless than other plants?

The irises in my eyes help me see the irises in the garden, but why do they have the same name? Are marshmallows really made from marsh mallows?

Do cosmos exist throughout the cosmos?

And will these questions ever stop?

An anemone (pronounced uh-NEM-uh-nee), sometimes called a “windflower” for reasons that should clear shortly, is a member of the buttercup family.

The sea anemone, which can look very flowerlike, is actually an animal, a type of sea polyp.

The name “anemone” is Greek, an alteration of “anemos,” for “wind.” This link is seen in “anemometer,” a fancy name for “wind gauge.”

So an anemone can be a land plant or a water animal, and is named for moving air. That’s three of the four ancient basic elements. Where’s the fire?

“Impatiens” and “impatient” are indeed from the same Latin root, “pati,” meaning “to suffer.” It’s also the origin of “passion,” which originally meant “suffering or agony, as of a martyr.” Christians recognize this aspect in the Passion of Jesus.

These days, “passion” can refer to any of the basic human emotions or all of them collectively as a plural.

“Patience,” then, is “the will or ability to wait or endure without complaint” or “steadiness, endurance or perseverance in the performance of a task.”

The notion that “impatiens” are short on those qualities comes from the tendency of their ripe seed pods to split open and throw seeds in all directions when touched. In fact, a related plant, the jewelweed, is also called the “touch-me-not.”

The two irises have a colorful connection. “Iris” is Greek for “rainbow,” and it was the name of the goddess of the rainbow in Greek mythology. The word “iridescent” for “having or showing shifting changes in color or an interplay of rainbowlike colors” comes from this root.

Flowers of iris plants come in many colors of the rainbow.

And the iris is the part of the eye we refer to when describing eye color, except for “red eyes,” “pinkeye,” “black eyes” and “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”

The “marsh mallow” (two words, with the second rhyming with “shallow”) is one member of the mallow family. Its root is sometimes used in medicine. And, yes, it was formerly an ingredient in a sweet paste called “marshmallow” — one word, the second syllable more commonly pronounced “mellow.”

Nowadays, the spongy confection is typically made of sugar, starch, corn syrup and gelatin, cut into rounded pieces, and coated with powdered sugar.

“Cosmos” are a genus of plants in the daisy family. The name comes from the Greek “kosmos,” meaning “universe,” “world,” “harmony,” “order.” It’s also the basis of “cosmic,” “cosmopolitan” and “cosmetic,” among others.

The ancient Greeks believed the universe to be a harmonious and orderly place. Ah, the good old days. ...

As for why the plants were given that name, one idea is that Spanish priests in Mexico were impressed by their evenly placed petals. After looking at a number of photos of them, I must say they look a bit like brightly colored clusters of stars — the heavens on Earth.

Contact Rockford Register Star writer Barry Wood at or read his blog at