"Virginia" names in North America

Can anyone tell me why so many of the common and latin names for North American plants and wildlife are called Virginia something or another?(e.g. Virginia Opossum) Or have some form of Virginia in the latin name? Why Virginia? Is it just where the specimen was found first? Was there some naturalist who live in Virginia and named a lot of plants? Other states have plants and animals named after them, but not nearly as many as Virginia.


I don’t know for sure, but I’d imagine that there were some early, very active naturalists working in Virginia. (Also, remember, the original British charter for Virginia specified the area along the coast, and everything inland from there – all the way to the Pacific Ocean. So there was a large area to work in.) Also, Virginia was the first English colony to be successfully established in N. America, so it’s possible that early on, biologists in England used that name to refer to things that came from N. America, even if they didn’t actually come from Virginia.

One other complication – at least one species of bird, Virginia’s Warbler, has virginia in the names but wasn’t named after the state. It’s named after the wife of the man who first collected it. Something similar may be the case with some other examples, as well.


I agree with psweet that “Virginia” and “America” were sometimes used to refer to all of the new lands of North America. I wonder if there are any examples of flora or fauna with virginiana as a species name but are not actually found in Virginia, the state.

1 Like

The version I heard was that in his Systema Naturae, Linnaeus bestowed the species term “virginiana” or some version of it on species that were sent to him from Virginia. The story was that Thomas Jefferson (of Virginia, of course) sent Linnaeus many specimens, but that may be fabrication (Jefferson was in his thirties when Linnaeus died in 1778). There are a lot of organisms named for Maryland and Carolina, too, and quite a few for Pennsylvania (=pensylvanica). I think a lot of those were named by Linnaeus (look for the L. after the scientific name in formal treatments).

1 Like

That would be interesting, but remember that originally, Virginia and the Carolinas did not have a western boundary. It was Virginia as far west as you could go. And the state West Virginia wasn’t split off from Virginia until 1863, pretty late in the game.

1 Like

I have a related example but I’m on the west coast so out here everything is named for California. We have a rare plant that lives only in Nevada and Arizona called Arctomecon californica or Las Vegas bear poppy. It was collected and described in 1844 by Fremont when Las Vegas was still part of the Mexican territory of Alta California.


Species named after other states may not be quite as obvious as virginiana or carolinensis. For example, there are a handful of birds whose scientific names contain “ludoviciana” or “ludovicianus.” Both come from the Latinized Louis or Louisiana. Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) is only occasionally seen in the state, but is found breeding in areas that were part of the Louisiana purchase. The Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) is named both for Louisiana and Carolina. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) and Loggerhead Shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus) are two others, and of course the Louisiana Waterthrush. I’m sure there’s other taxa also named for Louisiana, but I’m most familiar with birds.


Tradescantia ohiensis
Lilium michiganense
Trautvetteria caroliniensis
Quercus {georgiana, texana, virginiana, marilandica} (also, Q.montana is for mountains, not the state)
Agave utahensis
Lilium philadelphicum
Erythronium americanum (at least 10 other XX americanums)
Hydrophyllum canadense (at least 10 other XX canadense)

… endless

forgot Prunus {fremontii, pensylvanica, americana, virginiana, caroliniana, alleghaniensis, mexicana}

Here in Michigan, so many things are named some variation of canadensis that i sometimes wonder if the border shifted at some point!

And on a stray note, I believe the original origin for things virginia and virginiana referred to the Virgin Queen, aka Elizabeth I, so many of them may in fact not have been named for the state but for the queen. Similarly, caroliensis was a reference to King Charles (prob I and II). And jacobean refered to the Jameses I and II.


And here in Gisborne NZ we have the “Gisborne cockroach” which has nothing to do with being discovered in Gisborne and it is likely that our cockroach is a related species, so the name AND the roach are not really anything to do with Gisborne!


sounds like classic Baader-Meinhof effect and surely everybody who visits this forum thread will now notice a disproportionate amount of virginiensis, canadensis, californicus, texana, or [insert geographic-based epithet here] in the next few days


I can’t remember where I learned it, but I remember learning that it was exactly as you explain it:

  • VA was one of the first big anglophone colonies.
  • VA was once essentially all of the central latitudes of the continent
  • VA Essentially came to mean the Eastern Seaboard to 18th-century European botanists who were actually naming things
    I think ‘canadensis’ also has the same significance

I couldn’t find the story I once found about botanist poaching, but I thought I would mention it here. William Vernon, for whom ironweed (Vernonia) is named, was an English botanist who was ‘poached’ by the colonial governor of Maryland from the colonial governor of Virginia in the late 1600s. Evidently there was a sort of gentlemanly competition amongst the states to get their biota cataloged. Perhaps the preponderance of virginana epithets is also the result of a Governor’s support of more naturalists?

1 Like

Others have mentioned epithets for pretty much all the southern former colonies plus marilandica. There’s nova angliae for New England and novaboracensis for New York, but I don’t know of an epithet for Delaware, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts. Are there Latinized versions for them? If not it seems odd that we have all those carolinianas & virginianas then essentially skip points north until you get to canadensis.

I’d imagine newly arriving europeans influenced established habitats of plants/animals, so once virginiana could be no more?

I’m no Latin scholar, but it seems you can add basically add “-ensis/-ense” or “icus/-icum/-ica” (depending on gender of the… place) to any place name to denote a species is found or associated with that place. Thus the great state of Delaware gives us Basidiophora delawarensis and Larus delawarensis (although that second one seems to be named for the Delaware River, but I’m just gonna assume it’s the stretch along the state), and from the Bay State we get Epischura massachusettsensis. Not sure of the other states yet: searching for “novahampshirensis” hasn’t yielded fruit, and the etymology of Rhode Island itself seems unresolved.

And both “vermontense” and “vermontensis” seem to be used for Vermont. (e.g. Eosentomon vermontense and the Cambrian Centropleura vermontensis fauna of northwestern Vermont): anecdotally it seems paleontologists have been more apt to use “-ensis” rather than “-ense”. I’d like to know the grammatical reasoning behind this.

As memory serves, Virginia was named for Queen Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen”, so many of these species were (technically) being named for Queen Elizabeth.

However, Virginia’s Warbler was named for the wife of Dr. William Anderson (nee Mary Virginia Childs). Anderson was a surgeon in the US Army until his resignation in 1861 to join the Confederacy. It has been suggested that the naming of warbler he collected in New Mexico in 1860 after his wife was a round-about way of honor a its “discoverer” while down-playing the part about succession and treason. He claimed that it was actually done at his request to honor his wife, however.

Anyone know about Lucy’s warbler?

There’s also the rather unfortunate “vermontanus” as with one debatable rubus species.