Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Are You Latin-o-phobic?

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.
-- Cicero, 106-43 BC

Do your eyes glaze over when gardener-geeks use those mind numbing Latin sounding names for plants? Believe me, I know that look. I’ve received it many times. Do you prefer names like creeping jenny, candy tuft or love-in-a-mist (aka love-in-a-puff)? Ok, well I agree the common names may be easier, cute and even historically quaint, but they are not really all that helpful in a plant search since common names do not usually jump regional lines. Even within the USA, ‘star creeper’ can be the name for several different plants, depending on your locale. And when your friend in the UK just raves about the delightful Busy Lizzie in her shady garden borders “and you’ve just got to get some luv”, unless she can identify them by their botanical name you’ll be hard pressed to find American nursery staff who can lead you to the Impatiens. Busy Lizzie, Policeman’s Helmet and the like are just not helpful names if you are trying to find at the nursery exactly what your long-distance friends rave about in their gardens. More helpful is to use the scientific names which are recognized world wide, no matter what language you speak.

Lest you think me a plant snob and immediately jump to another blog, please understand I’m not calling for an end to common names. I’ve read many an article defending their use and historical significance. I’d simply like to see them used in tandem with their scientific universal counterparts. In my opinion, any gardening magazine and catalog worth its salt will identify plants with both the botanical name and the common name together.

Scientific botanical names are referred to as “Latin” but really are mostly comprised of Greek and Latin, with some from other languages and some personal names of those who ‘discovered’ the plant or hybridized it. Greek and Latin, in the 16th and 17th centuries were the languages of the educated and intellectuals of Europe, so it was the language of choice when the universal classification and naming of plants became serious business. You don’t have to become fluent in Latin, just understanding how the system works is a step in the right direction. The scientific botanical nomenclature is simply a system of various levels of classification. Not so simple is understanding it in its entirety, but here’s the basic idea.

Each plant, based on structural characteristics is assigned to a family. For example the Lily family is Liliaceae. You don’t see the family name very often so don’t be too concerned about it.

Within the Liliaceae family are further divisions called genus, narrowing down the similarities even more. The genus is the first Latin name of the plant that you usually see on a plant’s tag or in a magazine. It is always capitalized and is treated as a noun. In the Liliaceae family we find the genus Hosta, Muscari (Grape Hyacinth), Convallaria (Lily of the Valley) and many others. All three of these plants belong to the Lily family, but they are so different from each other, you can see why they have been separated into their own genus.

The genus is followed by a second word, the species name. It is not capitalized and is in the form of an adjective to describe the noun or explain a property of the plant. Species names may tell us where the plant originated, or what the leaf or flower looks like, or which conditions it likes to grow in, or the shape the plant will grow into and more. For instance lancifolia means lance shaped leaf (long, narrow and pointy). So my Hosta lancifolia (lance-i-fo-lee-a) is a hosta with lance shaped leaves, not ovoid leaves. Or the second word can be the name of the person who created it through hybridization, or ‘discovered’ the plant in it’s native habitat and brought home it’s seeds, divisions or cuttings. For example Viburnum carlesii (karlz-ee-eye) is a Viburnum that was discovered and developed by plantsman W. R. Carles.

Sometimes there is a third name denoting a subspecies or variety, further describing a property of the plant. And finally a fourth name would be a cultivar name. A cultivar name will be in quote marks, is capitalized and is a variety that has been cultured or produced by human hybridization. For example, the shrub Ceanothus gloriosus exaltatus ‘Emily Brown’ is a Ceanothus that is superb (gloriosus), grows very tall (exaltatus), and is the cultivar Emily Brown. Ceanothus horizontalis is a low growing species. The Ceanothus dentatus  has toothed leaves.

Isn’t that cool? See how descriptive the species names are? Once you get used to seeing and deciphering them, they can be really informative. And for us English speakers, much of our language has its roots in Latin and Greek so many of these words are not too hard to figure out. What do you suppose tardiflora means? Late flowering!

Gardener’s Latin, A Lexicon by Bill Neal and Barbara Damrosch is a book that has taken much of the confusion out of trying to make sense of botanical Latin for me. Like a dictionary, it is an alphabetical list defining many of the species names you’ll see on plant tags, and is also full of humorous and interesting botanical facts and folk lore. Sadly for gardeners everywhere this book is now out of print but used copies are available. I found mine at or your local bookseller may be able to find a copy for you.

Dictionary of Plant Names by Allen J. Coombes is another gotta have book that lists the Latin family, genus and species names, their meaning and pronunciation. I think both are indispensable.

To audibly hear pronunciation you can go to and find their link there.

I hope this has taken the intimidation factor out of botanical Latin for you. There is truly a wealth of information in it. Give it a try!

In bloom in my garden today: Kirengeshoma palmata, Borage, Daphne, Coreopsis, Digitalis (foxglove), Salvia, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum (potato vine), Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis (river lily), Alyssum
 Food ready for the birds: Caryopteris seeds, Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Coreopsis seeds, Liatris seeds.

Author’s photos


Shari B. said...

Hi Joan! Sorry for the delay on reading and commenting (does that make me 'tardipostasharisii'?) :) Another great post showcasing your knowledge!

I never would have imagined that the gardeners who hybridized or discovered plants became part of the names! Very cool!

Many muscles are named in a similar fashion (often being named for the insertion and origin points for associated bones) so that makes the plant names more easy to understand, especially the way you explained it.

Love that there is a pronunciation link!!


Joan said...

I thought of you alot while writing this post, knowing your training involved alot of Latin (or at least Latin sounding) muscle names. Glad I made it understandable. That's half the battle isn't it? I didn't know that's how muscles got their names. Very interesting. BTW I like your new moniker...very good!