Naming the Rainbow

By Matthew C. Pace

Jun 4 2022

Botany uses Latin to describe and name plants, including the Latin words for colors: rubrum (red), coccineum (scarlet), aurantiaco (orange), flavum (yellow), viridis (green), caeruleum (blue), indicum (indigo), purpurea (purple), and viola (violet).

The genus Iris takes its names from the ancient Greek and Latin word for a rainbow (iris, Ἶρις). The rainbow threads through LGBTQ+ culture, from the Rainbow Flag to the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow," sung by Judy Garland in the movie The Wizard of Oz. Originally designed by artist Gilbert Baker in 1978, the colors on the most popular version of the Rainbow Flag include red, orange, yellow, green, royal blue, and violet, respectively symbolizing life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic and serenity, and spirit.

Rainbows are important symbols in many cultures and religions. The Greek goddess Iris traveled on a rainbow while carrying messages from the gods to humans. The symbolism of the rainbow as a divine message linking the heavens and earth is also seen in the Biblical story of Noah and the flood. Similarly, Ancient Vedic Hinduism holds that god Indra used the rainbow as his bow, and the Aboriginal Australian Rainbow Serpent is a creator god and a giver of life through its association with water, but it can be destructive if angered. Tibetan Buddhism uses the phrase ‘rainbow body’ to describe a high level of realization at the moment of death, a body of pure light that transcends the physical body.

Colors are commonly used as names of plant species. Follow the stories below to learn more about plants with a rainbow of color right in their names!

A Closer Look

More about: ColorsPride

"red, scarlet, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, purple, violet". OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. (Accessed: 28 May 2022).

Encyclopedia Brittanica, online. "Iris, Greek mythology." The Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica. (Accessed: 30 May 2022).
Bird, Stephanie Rose. 2006. "Australian Aborigines". In William M. Clements (ed.). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Folklore and Folklife. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 292–299.

Alain Daniélou. 1991. The Myths and Gods of India: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism from the Princeton Bollingen Series. Inner Traditions. pp. 110–111.

"Rainbow body". Wikipedia. (Accessed 31 May 2022)