I am writing a fantasy novel set in the Middle East. For multiple reasons related to both plot and atmosphere, I'm using flowers and flowering trees a lot in both descriptions and dialogue. Trouble is, many plants that are very common in the Middle East don't have common names in English - only clunky Latin names. For example:

They rested under the branches of a Vachellia tortilis during the hot hours of the day, and only continued on their way when the sun hung low over the West horizon.


He walked from between the trees out into a clearing covered with Sternbergias in full bloom.


They're as impossible to kill as a Faidherbia albida.

The Latin names evoke nothing at all, and break the flow of the narration.

If I limit myself only to plants with common English names, I am left with only a small subset of the flora I see around me. Is there a way I can make use of the full range of Middle-Eastern plants (or at least of enough of them that I don't get stuck seeking for something that would be in flower in a given habitat in a given season, and please please please have an English common name), without the text creaking, clunking, and crashing into a wall of disinterest?

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    Is it vital that the flower is named? Would it be sufficient to describe the flower instead?
    – sudowoodo
    Mar 17, 2018 at 12:13
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    @sudowoodo Describing suggests the characters don't know the name of the plant, which is contrary to what I'm trying to display. Also, imagine, for example, this description out of the LotR: "the carven rim of [the stone basin] was almost wholly covered with mosses and rose-brambles; iris-swords stood in ranks about it, and water-lily leaves floated ..." (RotK 5 IV) without the flower names: "the carven rim was almost wholly covered with mosses and prickly flowering bushes; purple flowers stood in ranks about it, and broad leaves of a water flower leaves floated ..." See how it doesn't work? Mar 17, 2018 at 12:29
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    If their names in your language are made of regular words (like "fox-glove" or "snow-drop" or "lily-of-the-valley") you could translate them directly, which would flow better and probably convey at least a little what they look like. (It'll also probably sound ~exotic~ in an at least slightly orientalist way, so be careful.) Mar 17, 2018 at 22:50
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    @MissMonicaE I wish the names did translate to something exotic. We call the Sternbergia "egg-yolk flower", the Colchicum stevenii is "first-rain autumn flower", and then there's the Anagyris foetida - "stinking stinker". :D Mar 17, 2018 at 23:55
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    Why not use the names a person from the middle east would use? They wouldn't use the Latin names. Just ask someone from that region.
    – sashang
    Mar 19, 2018 at 1:56

7 Answers 7


The average western reader would not know the difference if you told them that your heroes rested in the shade of a rhubarb tree or tied their horse to a gigantic parsley.

Even western works that talk about people walking through a grove of ash or poplar only evoke a vague sense of woodsiness in the average city dweller. I think some have a vague sense that certain tree names belong to certain locales so if you say cottonwood they see the West and if you say mangrove they see the jungle, but they would not actually recognize these trees if they fell out of them.

If you want the reader to actually have some idea of what your trees look like, therefore, you need to describe them. If you just want them to have some vague sense of locale-specific woodsiness (which is probably the best you can hope for with most readers) then use whatever name seems to have the most romantic associations with the area you are writing about.

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    Yes, this. I remember being at a California farmers market, and seeing a woman ask what the flowers she was buying were called. When told gladiolus, she said 'oh, I've never heard of that! They're so exotic!" Which tickled me, because in the Midwest they're pretty much the ubiquitous Grandma's garden, grocery store bucket flower. I didn't see my first plumeria until I was an adult, and it took me many years after that to realize that frangipani were the same thing. So I think you really can't depend on the majority of readers knowing terms for plants beyond things like "tree" and "rose".
    – 1006a
    Mar 17, 2018 at 17:10
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    As an english speaker not living in the northern hemisphere I am largely unfamiliar with the trees used by American and British authors. It rarely causes a problem. Mar 18, 2018 at 2:25

When you write a story set in a different culture (with a different language) and you have things in your story that exist in that culture but not in the culture of your readers, use the names that the people from your story culture would use.

For example, if your story is set in an Arabic country and the people there wear a burka, then why would you call it something in Latin? It's not Roman clothing.

So if you have plants that only grow in the Middle East and therefore have common names only in a Middle Eastern language, then use that name (unless your protagonist is a botanist).

It happens every day! When I go to the supermarket, there are many exotic fruits there that don't have a name in my mother tongue, and the signs give the original exotic names (cumquat, pitaya, rambutan, langsat, pepino, kaki, feijoa, ...).

And no, you don't have to translate the name or describe the plant, if those details are not important to the story. This works perfectly fine:

Fayyaad lay down in the qạnẗ, the tiny leaves and blossoms a soft cushion under his head, and its rich fragrance engulfed him.


Nermin chewed more qat to take away her hunger.

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    That's fine if you want your audience to come away with a vague sense of foreignness (which may be exactly what you want), but if you say "He passed a stall filled with cumquat, pitaya, rambutan, langsat, pepino, kaki, and feijoa." and you want your reader to have any idea at all what that looked like, it is not going to work. This is yet one more case in which the voice of the narrator can get you out of a writing jam caused by adopting too limited a point of view.
    – user16226
    Mar 17, 2018 at 14:47
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    A sense of foreignness has everything to do with it, though not always much to do with what is actually foreign or not. This is precisely because people don't know what most animals or plants look like. People often have vague associations with words without actually knowing what they look like or where they come from. And in fiction, it is all about the sense experience you create for the reader, and that is based entirely on the associations they have with words, and nothing to do with what the things the words describe actually look like.
    – user16226
    Mar 17, 2018 at 15:00
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    @MarkBaker I don't get what you're getting at. I wrote "use the native name (not the Latin one or a translation)" and "you don't need to describe, if those details are unimportant", implying "do describe, if those details are important" (in which case there would be no vague sense of any kind, but a description as exact as the writer wanted it). So what is your critique?
    – user29032
    Mar 17, 2018 at 15:03
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    Description is completely overrated. Especially those who write their first novel are often overly concerned with conveying their mental image exactly. I recently finished a novel that takes place in a giant spaceship. I did not describe the appearance of any part of that spaceship, only what the people on board did (e.g. go jogging along the "outer rim"). Nevertheless I got reviews that mentioned how well I had described the vessel, when in fact it was the reader's imagination that conjured up what the environment looked like.
    – user29032
    Mar 18, 2018 at 7:55
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    @bumpy — are you a fan of Jack Vance? :P Mar 18, 2018 at 20:26

Most plants have some commonly used names as humans don't really want to use weird latin descriptions in their everyday conversations. A quick look on Wikipedia for Vachellia tortilis for example yields (emphasis mine):

Vachellia tortilis, widely known as Acacia tortilis but attributed by APG III to the Vachellia genus, is the umbrella thorn acacia

If you want to make this even more descriptive you could choose to have the people in your story call the flower by another name so that it's easier to imagine them:

thorny umbrella-shaped acacia

would be perfectly fine to describe that flower. Looking at your other examples we can come up with some somewhat meaningful names. Sternbergia would become "Golden Goblet" as the description of the plant says

These plants produce golden-yellow goblet-shaped flowers borne on stalks some way above the ground that open during the autumn or early winter.

It's even easier for Faidherbia as the description explicitly says:

Common names for it include apple-ring acacia (their circular, indehiscent seed pods resemble apple rings),[2] ana tree, balanzan tree and winter thorn.

Depending on how you want to portray the tree you could use "Winter Thorn" as a harsh description or "Apple-Ring Acacia" as a more poetic name.

People already took care of your problem - you just have to search for descriptions of your plants, for example by looking through their Wikipedia articles.


+1 Secespitus.

However, I never use any name I don't think my reader would understand, especially not a name derived from the discoverer or a person being honored; those real-life people do not exist in my fantasy!

I will make up names. Even for my experts that do know the formal names, and I introduce them as such, with a description. I disagree that LOTR reads better with formal names than it reads with descriptions, to me the descriptions aid the imagination of the reader better than any formal name possibly could. You say that yourself, that the formal names feel flat. That's because they don't evoke any image for anybody except a trained botanist.

The job of the writer, IMO, to aid the imagination of the reader, so they see what is in the writer's mind.

The etymology of the words can help: Acacia may derive from a word for thorny and first referred to a thorny Egyptian tree; thus something like thorny tree would be fine, it is how it was literally identified by early people. Most names were like that.

Thus I introduce a fantasy formal name, and use it with a description. True formal names do nothing, if you trace them to their origin they are nearly always descriptive names.

Another solution is to provide some formality by way of teaching or introduction. Describe the flower or plant from the POV of a person that has not seen it before or doesn't know its formal name or calls it be a colloquial and descriptive name, in dialogue a character can prove her expertise by using the formal name.

I see little point in doing that unless the plot requires an expert botanist at some point to use plant resources to get out of a bind or solve some problem. In that case, a few random instances of showing this knowledge are all that is necessary for the reader to believe in the expertise.

The point isn't to educate the reader, it is to entertain them, and dumping information on them that is not descriptive, or character building, or emotionally influential on a character, and has no influence on the plot, is (IMO) poor writing. Nobody cares if the information has no consequences.


Disclaimer: I'm a reader, not a writer.

I live on a rural island in Netherlands. Unless you have been here, I bet you have only a vague idea of what it looks like over here. Flat farmlands, probably? And beach? Yeah, but not a tropical beach like you see on tv. I'll tell you a little about my favourite vegetable, zeekraal.

Zeekraal grows in the wild here. Sometimes I will search between the rocks in the marsh during low tide for this elusive little herb. I love its slightly salty taste in a salad. I'll have to be quick though, because I must be out of the marsh before the tide comes rolling back in.

Now you know a little about my favourite vegetable, my knowledge of local vegetation and what my locale looks like. Zeekraal actually has an English name: glasswort, since it grows in certain areas of that nation just across the English Channel too, but I would avoid using it in this case. Glasswort is not very well-known and has a particular old-English sound to it, setting an entirely different vibe. It most likely has a Latin name too, but I wouldn't know that. I probably wouldn't even be able to remember it as a reader. Just like you probably don't know much about where I live, I don't know anything about where your protagonist lives.

Using the local name signals the following to the reader:

  • That the author acknowledges that the reader may not be familiar with it
  • That the reader does not need to look up what it is to enjoy the story
  • The extend to which the protagonist is familiar with it and locale culture

You can chose to describe the things in question or leave it out. I would decide this on a case by case basis, based on one simple question: is any aspect of the look of this plant relevant to the story?

Use whatever fits your story and its target audience best and from what it sounds like, that is usually the local name, unless you're talking about something you can safely assume the reader knows, for example potatoes.

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    In the British Isles we call it Samphire
    – web_bod
    Mar 19, 2018 at 13:10
  • @web_bod Interesting! I haven't heard that word before.
    – Belle
    Mar 19, 2018 at 14:56
  • And samphire is somewhat known in the UK. I bought some at Tesco not so long ago, even! Mar 19, 2018 at 16:01
  • @can-ned_food I did make it up on the spot. I accepted your edit, it's good ^^
    – Belle
    Mar 20, 2018 at 12:04

I am passionate about the linguistic research and from all my experience I'd suggest that you use the Latin name and it will be great if you use the local names of the flora and fauna of Middle East.

Using local names where the protagonist is, adds to the authenticity of the text. It enhances your work and engages your reader into researching about the local names. Though a description about them is needed as to not load your reader into deep research. Colloquialism, that's using local names of the setting, is what makes a text unique and classic. It impresses your text. And when you use local names then use it in inverted commas and in italics so the reader can infer that its not a common word.

Hope you understand what I am trying to say. And all the best for your Book. Do share the name with me so I can read :D

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    Is there a "not" missing in your first sentence? You seem to be saying that the asker should use the Latin name and that they should use local names. Mar 19, 2018 at 15:59
  • Oh sorry! I'd suggest using local names. The more authentic it comes across the more realistic it reads.
    – JayThakkar
    Mar 23, 2018 at 13:37

As others advise, first try to find English names of the flowers as much as you can. For example, Wikipedia suggests "karamoja, umbrella thorn" for vachellia tortilis, "winter daffodil, autumn daffodil, fall daffodil" (very creative) for sternbergia lutea, and "apple-ring acacia, ana tree, balanzan tree and winter thorn" for faidherbia.

If you want the names to sound less descriptive and more "compact", to imply that the characters know the flowers well, go for the short ones. If you also want to at least describe what the thing you are talking about it, append "flower" or "tree" to it. Not very poetic, but that's how English works.

Next candidate would be the local name of the plant, possibly equipped with a modifier in some places to introduce the plant (e.g. "thorny sunut trees", "apple-ring haraz acacias" etc.) so that next time you could drop them and the reader will retain the sense of description.

For the remaining group of plants which have no (short) local or English name, Englishify the Latin name! Many word in English come directly or indirectly from Latin, hence it is not that hard to introduce a Latin name to the language (when compared to e.g. Arabic). Using once again your example, it would be something like "vachellias", "sternbergs", "faidherbs" or something similar. Be creative, you'll make a nice "translation" of the name to English, yet retain its exotic sense and as a bonus, readers who are familiar with the Latin name will still understand the translated one. There's no shame in that, since that's how many names got into English in the first place. Using modifiers as above to introduce the plant is also recommended.

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