Morning name: nemesia

It’s a flower, one that’s been gorgeously in bloom (in mounds in gardens) locally for a while; though I don’t consciously recall identifying the plant as I passed by it, its name seems to have filtered into my subsconscious, to make a morning name yesterday. Nemesia strumosa ‘Carnival’ in a mixed assortment (the local ones are mostly in the yellow and orange range):

Three things: about the plant, about its name, and about flowers of the current season.

Thing 1: the plant. From NOAD2:

a plant related to the snapdragon that is cultivated for its colorful, obliquely funnel-shaped flowers. [Genus Nemesia, family Scrophulariaceae: several species, in particular N. strumosa and its hybrids.] ORIGIN modern Latin, from Greek nemesion, denoting various similar plants.

More details from Wikipedia:

Nemesia is a genus of annuals, perennials and sub-shrubs which are native to sandy coasts or disturbed ground in South Africa. [Note: the reference to “disturbed ground” suggests that some species of Nemesia — there are a great many — are in fact weeds in South Africa.] Numerous hybrids have been selected, and the annual cultivars are popular with gardeners as bedding plants. In temperate regions the annual cultivars are usually treated as half-hardy bedding plants, sown from seed in heat and planted out after all danger of frost has passed.

The flowers are two-lipped, with the upper lip consisting of four lobes and the lower lip two lobes.

Thing 2: the name. NOAD2 above takes it back only to a plant name (for various plants) in Greek. OED3 (Sept. 2003) takes it back a bit further:

νεμέσιον catchfly, Silene (… < ancient Greek νέμεσις nemesis n.). [first cite 1815)


nemesis: Etymology: A borrowing from Greek. Etymon: Greek νέμεσις. < ancient Greek νέμεσις righteous indignation, retribution, also personified as Νέμεσις (classical Latin Nemesis ), the name of the goddess of retribution < νέμειν to give what is due, deal, distribute.

a. Usu. in form Nemesis. Originally in classical mythology: the goddess of retribution or vengeance, who reverses excessive good fortune, checks presumption, and punishes wrongdoing; (hence) a person who or thing which avenges, punishes, or brings about someone’s downfall; an agent of retribution. [first cite 1542]

b. orig. and chiefly N. Amer. In extended use: a persistent tormentor; a long-standing rival, an arch-enemy. [first cite 1933; note on syntax: with of-possessive (nemesis of William Walker) or inflectional possessive (his nemesis)]

What’s missing in this story is how the name for a Greek goddess got applied to a plant. It’s not that naming plants for mythological figures, Christian saints, and historical figures (other than naturalists) is uncommon, but in each case there’s some story to be told: yarrow, Achillea, a vulnary, is named after the Greek hero Achilles, whose soldiers were said to have used yarrow to treat their wounds. But I don’t know how the goddess Nemesis gave her name to various plants.

Thing 3: seasonal plants. In the Bay Area, Nemesia is especially a plant of the late winter and the spring; it likes cool nights (in some other places, it’s somewhat later, since it doesn’t tolerate frost). So it overlaps with the appearance of summer flowers, in particular star jasmine. On star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides, see my 5/4/15 posting (note the date) “Good and evil: Star Jasmine” (with a photo), where I wrote:

We’re moving into summer vegetation here, including the blossoming of star jasmine everywhere: lovely flowers, intoxicatingly sweet fragrance.

It’s also, alas, a major allergen.

2 Responses to “Morning name: nemesia”

  1. Chris Waigl Says:

    I’m not sure I believe the etymology deriving the name from nemesis rather than talking about cognates. As far as I understand it, Étienne Pierre Ventenat named the genus Nemesia in the early 19th century after the plant name nemesion or nemeseion (νεμεσεῖον) used by Pedanius Dioscorides (first century CE botanist/physician) for plants from the genus now called Silene, which Vententat thought were similar. That name should derive from νεμεῖν/nemein, “to distribute, pasture, enjoy feed”, with νέμος (nemos) “wooded pasture, glade”. The name of the goddess comes from the “distribute” sense, but I would guess the name of the plant coming from the “woodland” sense. (I pieced this together using Wikipedia, a Greek dictionary, and especially this CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names :

  2. Ken Sandler Says:

    I just bought the “Snow Angel” variety and was wondering whether it’s related to the common English word nemesis. I’m glad to hear that it’s probably not, and is more likely derived from the Greek “nemos” referring to a wooded pasture. I did study ancient or classical Greek in college and remember some of what I read & learned. I truly appreciate you research & thoughtful analysis!

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