Sunday, November 15, 2009

What's In a Name?

When I was in High School, I took Latin as my foreign language.  I opted out of the more popular Spanish here in Texas because I couldn't roll my R's, which always made me feel stupid when trying to speak in front of the class.  I promptly chose Latin because it's a dead language, which meant no speaking in front of the class!  (I know, I know.  Lame excuse for taking a foreign language.)  My other reason for taking the class was I knew I wanted to go into the horticulture industry, which meant I would need some Latin for botanical nomenclature.  Out of all the classes I took in High School, Latin has turned out to be the most beneficial later in life. Not only did I learn words for plant names, I also learned many other derivatives that have helped me with the English language too.

I say all of that so I could go into why I wanted to write this post.  On a daily basis, I look at plant names and can usually break them down with the little bits of Latin I remember or have picked up.  I've found it useful if I have never heard of a certain plant.  Sometimes the name will tell you what color the flower is, the kind of foliage it has, or even let you know where the plant came from.  Latin can indeed be very useful to someone who works in the industry, but to a homeowner or the casual gardener, Latin can be very helpful when buying plants at the local nursery.

Looking for a white flowered plant?  A name with 'Alba' in it somewhere will probably give you what you want.  Want a plant that creeps along the ground?  A name with 'Reptans' will work.  Want to know if a plant is native to your area? If you're in Texas, look for names like 'texensis' in it.  Here are a few other beneficial words that have helped me along the way.

  • Red - rubens
  • Orange - aurorius
  • Yellow - luteus or aureus
  • Green - virens
  • Blue - coeruleus
  • Purple - purpureus
  • Brown - fuscus
  • Gray - ravus
  • Black - niger
  • White - alba
Notable Features:
  • Variegated - variegatus
  • Edged - marginata
  • Netted/ Veined - reticulatus
  • Clustered Together - aggregatus
  • Double Flowers - pleniflorous
  • Fingered - digitalis
  • Round - globosus
  • Palmate - palmatus
  • Pointed - pungens
  • Upright - erectus
  • Tall - elatus
  • Short - minor
  • Edible - edulis
  • Fragrant - fragrans
By no means is this list complete, and many of the words have other Latin words that can go with the ones I have listed here.  A person could spend years studying Latin to understand the botanical nomenclature system, but my list helps one to understand that the plant names can be broken down to help identify parts of the plant itself.  They really aren't some made up mumbo-jumbo that some random scientist decided to name the plant upon its discovery!

I came across a book,  Gardener's Latin by Richard Bird, that I use from time to time as a reference for my gardening Latin.  I recommend anyone who is remotely interested in plants to buy the book for a plant name reference.  Since most gardening books are indexed by the botanical name of the plant instead of the common name, I've found it helpful to at least know the Latin names of the plants I have in my gardens.  If the names are too long or complicated to remember, write them down in a journal for reference later.  If you ever have a problem with that plant, you'll easily be able to look it up in a book by its true name.

I'll wrap this post up with a bit of fun.  I know more than a few people in the industry that pride themselves on playing the 'name game' with Latin botanical names of plants.  Walk through a garden with a friend, and whoever knows the most names wins (what they win, I'm not quite sure.)  It's a fun game none the less!  How many botanical names do you know?  I bet a little friendly competition will help you learn more!  You'll feel clever after winning a few rounds...which reminds me of a quote my High School Latin teacher had posted in her classroom.

I would make them all learn English: 
and then I would let the clever ones 
learn Latin as an honor. 

Sir Winston Churchill


  1. I love using botanical names. They are more familiar to me then the confusing common names. Your post shows the logic in using them and hopefully people will not be afraid to use them more often :)

  2. Oooh, so helpful! I found that working in a nursery helps you absorb the latin names as well, but our Sunset Western Garden Book (I'm sure you have a Texan version) should have a quick reference guide to this sort of thing. Shouldn't it?!
    It's always funny to hear different pronunciations, too. People can get snobby about that! Thanks so much- I'll definitely reference this!

  3. Very useful information. Thanks for the tips. I find it hilarious that I can remember the name of a plant, and not a person. What does that say about me? I need to work on my people skills. :)

  4. I loved your post! Yes, yes, yes! I took Latin in high school as well, and it certainly has been useful. I'm a nurse, so all those medical terms came easily to me, and you are right about how helpful latin is to gardeners. It's cool that gardeners all over the world can identify the same plant by the same name.


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