Botanical Bynames in Medieval Russia

By Paul Wickenden of Thanet

Medieval Russians, when searching for creative bynames to be known by, sometimes chose surnames based upon the names of plants, flowers, trees, and so on. Unlike the zoological surnames that I have discussed elsewhere, the potential explanations for the use of such surnames are few. For the most part, they are likely to be surnames that derived from patronymics (and thus based on nicknames), that is, the “Willow” family is probably descended from “John the Willow” rather than receiving the byname outright. There is some possibility that the names could be locative (the “Willows” lived near a willow grove originally) or occupational (they sold willow trees), but this seem less likely.

Unbegaun discusses these names in his Russian Surnames (1972) on pages 191-195 (as well as a brief discussion of more exotic breeds on page 225) and, as I have done elsewhere, I have started with his list and expanded upon it as I researched. My priority was to document the bynames themselves and, only as a fall-back document them as patronymics using period given names. Both of these were done using my Dictionary of Period Russian Names (2000).

Only when that failed did I turn to dictionaries of period Russian in search of documentation. The logic here (as before) was that if a plant name was used in period, then a byname could be constructed from it. This logic is less than convincing, of course, as there are plenty of plants that were never used to create bynames. Still, it is the logic in use in the SCA, so what we end up with in our last category is a series of bynames that can be documented as SCA-compatible (without necessarily being convincingly period).

Table of Contents

TreesPlants, Grasses, and HerbsVegetablesFruits and BerriesFlowersConclusions


Trees are one sources for bynames. In the list that follows, I have included not only particular tree names, but also parts of trees. As for the trees themselves, Unbegaun lists these in two groups – common trees (on page 192) and exotic trees that were predominately used as ecclesiastical names (page 225) – but I have combined both together here. Among the names that I could find as documentable period bynames in my Dictionary are:

And names that could be documented as period patronymics because period nicknames exist in Wickenden based upon the tree names include:

Finally, there are the hypothetical names based upon period words for various trees that could not be documented as nicknames:

Out of Period Names . Of the names in Unbegaun’s list, one tree name turns out to be very distinctly out of period: the orange tree. The earliest recorded reference to orange tree (pomeranets) is “pomeranez” and dated to 1697 [SRIa XVII: 9].

Plants, Grasses, and Herbs.

Plants, grasses, and herbs are among the most common botanical bynames in Russia. Unbegaun (192) attributes this popularity to their utility in medical and culinary functions. The names found in Wickenden include:

Names that can be documented through given names found in Wickenden include:

Of the names originally found in Unbegaun’s list that have not been documented so far, only one can be supported through a reference to a period word. The word for flax (kron)(dated to 1073) [SRE I: 1329] can give us Kronov.

Out of Period Names . Two other names in Unbegaun’s list come from out of period words:

However, there are other names that could not be found and which may be even older.


Names based on vegetables are also common (again, probably because of their use as food) and make up a large section of period bynames. Names that can be found in Wickenden as bynames include:

There are no additional names documentable through given names and only one that can be documented as a period word: Carrot – Morkovov (from morkov, 16th century) [SRIa IX: 265].

Fruits and Berries

Slightly less common than the vegetables are names based on fruits and berries. As a rule, most of the fruits and berries that can be found are indigenous but a few exotics exist. Names that can be documented through Wickenden as period bynames:

Names that can be documented via period nicknames found in Wickenden include:

And a few of the names from Unbegaun’s list can be documented as being derived from period words. They are:

Out of Period Names . One surname – Ezhevikin (blackberry) – is probably out of period as the word it is based upon (ezhevika) could only be dated to 1643 [SRIa V: 36].


The most exotic botanical bynames are those named after flowers. The primary reason for their rarity as bynames, Unbegaun (225) informs us, is because they were hardly ever used as nicknames (and thus a patronymic would not have been created). Of those surnames that did develop from the names of flowers, many utilized flower names of foreign origin, making the names even more exotic.

Only three names from Unbegaun’s list can be documented from Wickenden as bynames directly:

And only one additional name can be documented through a period nickname, and it is a fairly generic “little flower” (Tsvetkov) from the nickname Tsvetko (dated to 1552) [374]. To drive the point home even more firmly, only one additional name can be documented through a period word: “lily” (Liliev) from the word lilii (dated to 1499) [SRE II: 22].

Out of Period Names . Not only are these bynames very exotic, but even the flowers’ names themselves are exotic and infrequent. Some of them are downright out of period even as words. Two examples from Unbegaun’s list include:

But, of course, there are probably plenty more that could simply not be found in dictionaries of early Russian.


Botanical bynames are probably nowhere near as common as zoological or occupational bynames, but they do make a very colorful class of names to consider using for your persona. As with the zoological bynames, Russians are most apt to use botanical names based on flora that actually existed in Russia in period. However, some names are based on exotic and non-indigenous plants (particularly ones found in the south and/or the Middle East). The latter is the case because of Biblical references and the ties of Russians with their more southerly Orthodox neighbors.

Finally, as I have done before, I would offer the following additional notes:

1) Because of the rather unique category of names that the ones listed here fall into, I have identified them as “bynames.” As noted, some of them may be patronymics, which others could be true surnames. As surnames, however, are rare in period, it seems unlikely that a majority of the names listed here are surnames. Determining which are and which are not, however, is not a terribly productive enterprise. Therefore, labeling them all as “bynames” (unless otherwise pre-determined) seemed the wisest approach.

2) Throughout this article, I have only provided masculine versions of the bynames. For the most part, these are all “Type I” bynames, so they can be feminized by adding “-a” on the end. For those unfamiliar with Russian byname construction, I would refer you to the more thorough discussion in Wickenden.

3) The reader will note a number of names with asterixes (*) next to them. These are guilty confessions. They are names which have been misidentified within Wickenden for one reason or another. In some cases, they have been placed in the wrong location, while in others their definitions have been incorrectly given. In general, in cases of dispute between the third edition (2000) of Wickenden and this article, this article is more accurate and up-to-date. (sigh!)


Akademiia nauk SSSR/Rossisskaia akademiia nauk. Slovar’ russkogo iazyka [SRIa]. Moscow: Nauka, 1975-1999+. Twenty-three+ volumes.

Sreznevskii, I. I. Slovar’ drevnerusskogo iazyka, Reprintnoe izdanie [Sre]. Moscow: Kniga, 1989/1893. Three volumes.

Unbegaun, B. O. Russian Surnames. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Wickenden of Thanet, Paul. Dictionary of Period Russian Names, Third Edition. Normal IL: Free Trumpet Press West, 2000/1996/1994.

Return to Paul’s Archive