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Understanding Latin Names Banner

Understanding Latin Names

Latin names are the bane of most gardeners' lives. Richard Bird attempts to smooth the path.

One of the things that puts off many gardeners from progressing from being a bedding-plant man to one interested in growing a wider range of plants is the names they bear. Two problems immediately rear their ugly heads for those who have not studied Latin at school, first there is the question of pronunciation and secondly how to remember such unfamiliar names. Beginners listen with awe to those who seem to have the facility to let the names trip off their tongues and all too often the prowess of a gardener is judged more by this ability than by the results he produces in the garden.

However, there is no really mystique, impatience rather than lack of ability is the problem with most gardeners; they want to be able to know the names of all the plants at once, to be able to speak with conviction and knowledge about any plant they see. I can guarantee that if all plants had English names, we would still have the same problem; it is the sheer quantity of names to remember rather than the language barrier.

Pronunciation worries a lot of people, they are quite familiar with the word on the printed page, but when it comes to uttering it they become tongue-tied in case they make a fool of themselves. There really is no one way of pronouncing Latin in current use. I have listened to discussions between three very eminent gardeners and each one was pronouncing the plant under consideration in a different way. In spite of Latin being used as an international language, it is often very difficult to understand the way other nationalities speak it. This is not surprising when you think of the number of different ways of pronouncing an English word, mainly depending on where you live. Likewise there is no reason why we should all pronounce Latin words in the same way, so just say it as you think fit. Gradually you will find there is a consensus about many names and you will come into line, but if you say them with sufficient confidence you will find that people come into line with you. The main thing is not to worry, just pitch in; the more experience you get the more confident you will become.

Now to the words themselves. Again it is fear of the unknown rather than the language itself. Most gardeners and non-gardeners will use, without second thought, words such as aquilegia, chrysanthemum, delphinium, hydrangea and rhododendron, which are all quite complex words unlike any other in English (and just to confuse the issue even more the last four are derived from Greek words - botanical Latin is in fact a mixture of Latin and Greek as well as names from many other languages). Now if you can cope with these names then there is no reason why you should not be able to cope with the rest.

But be patient, you cannot expect to learn half a million names over night. Start by learning the plants you grow, the ones with which you are most familiar. Use their Latin names in preference to their vernacular ones, if they have them, so that you become used to the feel of Latin names (remember you already know a large number that have passed into the English language such as the ones mentioned above). The next thing is to look out for familiar names. As we will see in a moment, many of the compound names are made up of elements that occur over and over again and once this is recognised it becomes easy to synthesize them.

Names of the plants are basically made of two elements the generic and the specific name (there are also further elements such as subspecific, varietal and cultivar names but these will be ignored for the moment). The generic name appears first and is introduced by a capital letter. This is the basic botanical unit in which all plants with similar properties are gathered. Familiar examples are Primula (the primroses), Dianthus (the pinks). Ranunculus (the buttercup) and Clematis. (Incidentally when Latin names are given in print the convention is to set them in italic.) There is no short cut here for the name of each genus must be learnt one by one in the same way as you must learn your friends' surnames. When first tackling Latin names it is often a good thing to get to recognise the genus of plants without worrying too much about their specific names. After a short while the gardener will be able to look through a book of flower illustrations and recognise that this is a Primula, this is Berberis and so on without knowing which particular one it is. Again concentrate on the ones you garden with and gradually expand your repertoire, do not be annoyed with yourself if you cannot learn every new plant you see, it usually takes quite a bit of familiarity with a plant before the name sinks in for the majority of us.

Within each genus there can be any number of species varying from one to, in some cases, several thousand. Each of these are given a name to differentiate from its near relatives, in the same way as brothers and sisters are differently named. These names are often descriptive or present some other information about the plant.

Although description of the plant is the most common form of name, I want to start by describing those named after people. Many plants are given the name of their discoverer or one of his friends or relatives. Once this is realised many of the seemingly difficult names take on a new and more understandable appearance. For example Impatiens roylei seems to have a strange specific name and quite difficult to remember until you see that it is named after a botanist, Professor Royle, as are Dianthus roylei and Inula royleana. Personal names usually have either -i, -ii or -iana tacked on them and are quite easy to spot, Thus Iris douglasiana is named after the explorer Douglas as are so many other plants, Primula forrestii is named after George Forrest, Ixora duffii after Duff, Gladiolus colvillei after Colville and so on. These simple facts make the Latin much more approachable and memorable as well as giving the key to what may at first sight seem an unpronouncable name. Unfortunately a lot of plants have been named after foreign botanists and these can lead to more unpronounceable names. Iris hoogiana named after the Dutch nursery man, Hoog, is not too bad once you know the principle nor is Aquilegia reuteri after the botanist Rueter, but what about Anemone tschern-jaewii? If it is any consolation, apparently the Russians have great difficulty getting their tongues around names such as Senecio smithii and Aquilegia jonesii which any Smith or Jones should be able to accomplish with ease.

Another easy group are those named after places, usually where they were found or reputed to have been found. These can be whole countries or smaller areas such as regions or towns. Primula sikkimensis is obviously the primula from Sikkim, Iris afghanica from Afghanistan and Erythronium americanum from America, less obviously perhaps Erysimum helveticum from Switzerland and Pedicularis groenlandica after Greenland. A couple of traps come to mind; formosa means beautiful and not from Formosa (formosana means from Formosa) and Scilla peruviana was not introduced from Peru as its name suggest but from the Mediterranean. It got its name because it was first brought to Britain on board a ship called HMS Peru! Smaller regions can be represented by Pinguicula nevadensis or Gentiana pyrenaica, the Pyrenean gentian. Pinus sibirica clearly shows its origins as does Sempervivum iranicum, but Sempervivum atlanticum shows that not all the place names should be taken literally, but at least they make an easy guide for remembering them.

Now we turn to the largest section of specific names, the descriptive ones. There are two types: the straightforward descriptive names, such as 'white', 'large' or 'downy' or more complex ones which describe a part of the plant, such as 'opposite-leaved', 'white-flowered' or 'leaves like a dandelion'. There are thousands of these and the beginner has little to go on except occasionally when the Latin word has a similar English equivalent, Veronica spicata or the spiked veronica for example, but bit by bit the gardener will build up a basic vocabulary in which words will become increasingly familiar wherever they occur.

A word that gardeners quickly become familiar with is alba as in Potentilla alba, the white potentilla. At this point I must introduce something that I would like to avoid, namely grammar. Since names are based on the Latin language the nouns (the generic name) and the adjectives (the specific names) must agree in gender. All Latin nouns are either male, female or neuter. We have all but lost this distinction in English except on the rare occasion when we might refer to a boat as 'she'. Basically what this means in practical terms is that there are three forms of 'white' namely alba, albus and album; masculine, feminine and neuter forms. The appropriate ending will be used depending on the gender of the noun or the generic name. Thus we have Nymphaea alba, Cytisus albus and Sedum album. Needless to say the situation is much more complex than this, but I hope the explanation goes some way to explaining why there are different endings to what appears to be the same word. The point is do not worry about it, bit by bit you will learn to use the right ending, but in the meantime no one will care if you say Sedum alba, even if they notice.

Perhaps I ought to dwell briefly on a couple of the complexities, if only to show the reader that life is not quite as simple as it may seem from the above and really that it does not matter a fig if he or she gets the endings wrong. The problem mainly stems from Greek words which have been used to form generic names. Here there is no convenient guide to the endings as we can see in Dodecatheon meadia where the word endings are -on and -a, which is not easy to spot as the Latin -a and -a. A further complexity is that those Greek generic names that end in -a are neuter and not feminine as in Latin and so take an adjective ending in -um, for example Phyteuma comosum. Even the experts often mix up these names that are a result of a mixture of languages, so it should not distress the beginner if he has to mumble the endings as he is uncertain how to finish a word. If you are writing the name then simply take time to look up the correct spelling. Let us hurriedly leave the grammar and return to the meaning of the words.

Looking at the first type of descriptive names, these are all quite simple. The word pygmaea (as in Lewisia pygmaea) means 'dwarf or 'pygmy-like', lilacina (as in Diascia lilacina) indicates 'lilac' in colour, sanguinea (as in Geranium sanguineum) is 'blood-red' (sanguine), incanus (as in Crepis incana) means 'hoary', humilis (as in Salix humilis) shows the plant is 'low-growing', spinosus (as in Globularia spinosa) indicates that the plant is 'spiny', and so on. Many of these words are used over and over again in different genera and one soon becomes familiar with them. Once the name is understood it becomes easier. The low growing willow automatically is thought of as Salix humilis.

The next type of descriptive name is a bit more complicated as each is made up of two parts. These are those with prefixes and suffixes. The prefixes are made up of words such as micro-, 'small' or tri- 'three' and the suffixes are usually parts of the plant, -phyllus, 'leaved', or -lobus, 'lobed'. The prefixes and suffixes are joined to make compound words so we have micro-phyllus, 'small-leaved' (as in Fuchsia microphylla), or triphyllus, 'three-leaved' (as in Gladiolus triphyllus), or trilobus, 'three-lobed', i.e. the leaves are three-lobed (as in Hepatica triloba). Other such descriptive names include ilicifolia, ilici 'holly-like' and folia 'leaves': 'holly-like leaves'. A more complicated-sounding name is arachnitiformis, which breaks down to arachniti, or 'spider-like' and formis, 'formed' or 'shaped'; hence 'spider-shaped' as in the spider orchid Ophrys arachnitiformis. There are a basic 20 to 30 prefixes and suffixes which, in combination with less familiar terms make up thousands of specific names. Once learnt these become second nature.

There is a third type of descriptive name, that based on the habitat of the plant. One of the most common is alpinum, mountainous (as in Dianthus alpinus). Other examples are nivalis, 'among snow' as in Galanthus nivalis, the snowdrop; maritimus, by the sea, as in Armeria maritima: nemerosus, 'in woods', as in Anemone nemorosa and glacialis, by 'glaciers', as in Ranunculus glacialis.

Allied to place is time, hence we have Omphalodes verna, where the verna is 'spring-flowering', or similarly there is Leucojum aestivalis where the specific name means 'summer-flowering'.

I think this is enough to digest in one lesson. It must look complicated to the beginner, but after a few years even many of the more complex names will become as familiar as Chrysanthemum or Rhododendron. I would recommend that you do not sit and try to learn names parrot-fashion, but let them come naturally by handling, looking at and talking about plants.

Richard Bird is editor of Growing from Seed and author of several books on different aspects of gardening.

Source of article
Growing From Seed - Spring 1990 Vol. 4 Number 2
© The Seed Raising Journal from Thompson & Morgan