Gardeners and the Latin Thing

So what about botanical Latin? It’s something even a semi-serious gardener will encounter eventually, if he or she wants to find out more about a plant or to order one from a supplier that organizes their product descriptions that way.

It also has enormous snob value. What better way to show that you are a Real Gardener than by saying (or writing) Hemerocallis instead of daylily, or Lavandula instead of lavender? I think most of us go through a phase like that, but eventually we realize that we sound silly and revert to common names for everyday purposes. (There is also the issue of pronunciation, which probably inhibits many would-be snobs).

There are times when you really do need to use that Latin name, though. You don’t want to end up with Vinca major, a truly rambunctious plant, when you want the more refined Vinca minor. And there are some garden perennials that are better known by their Latin genus names than common ones: Brunnera, for example. No one calls it “Siberian bugloss,” even though that is its common name.

I admit that in conversation I usually stick to the genus name, unless I happen to be discussing a group of related plants with which I’m familiar — euphorbias, for example, of which I have at least half a dozen species. These are a good example of why it matters to know the different types and their Latin names. There is a huge difference between Euphorbia characias, which can grow to be the size of a washing machine, and E. myrsinites, a sprawling thing about the size of a bath mat. Yet there is a clear family resemblance between them.

Euphorbia dulcis “Chameleon”

That’s the really interesting thing about botanical Latin. It’s not just a set of tongue-twisting names for plants assigned at random. It’s a classification, intended to show that certain plants are related to one another. As the gardener learns the names — not only the genus and species but the broader names of families — and observes the characteristics of the plants he or she grows, the relationships become evident. Think of the similarities among parsley, fennel and lovage — finely-cut leaves and umbel-shaped flower heads. They are all members of the Apiaceae. Or the quadrangular stems and paired leaves of mints and lamiums (family Lamiaceae). The Rosaceae are an enormous family that includes roses, of course, but also quinces, apples and blackberries. When you truly see the similarities between apples and rose hips, and the five-petalled, flat flowers of this group, it’s a distinct revelation. In these days when everyone looks up information on the internet, these relationships may be less obvious, so I recommend paging through a book on garden perennials or native plants of your region that is organized by botanical families. Study the pictures, or even better, actual plants, and you will experience an “aha” moment that elevates you above the dirt and weed aspect of gardening.

Another thing about botanical Latin — it’s great exercise for your brain! Consider this list of genus names: Cerastium, Ceratostigma, Epimedium, Erysimum, Eryngium, Liatris, Linaria, Liriope, Lysimachia, Lythrum. I have most of these plants in my garden, but I regularly have trouble remembering which name goes with which plant. But I am strict with my brain, and insist that it dredge up the correct term, without having to resort to looking it up. More often than not, the right name does emerge out of the jumble, which reassures me that I am not yet Losing It.

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