Echinacea – from the Greek echinos meaning hedgehog.
Digitalis – from the Latin for a finger, referring to the flowers which look like fingers of a glove.
Antirrhinum – from the Greek anti meaning resembling and rhis, a snout referring to the shape of the flower.
The botanical names for plants have a bit of an image problem. My Dad thinks I’m being ‘posh’ when I say a Latin name, lots of people are put off by the idea of learning them because they think they’ll be difficult to understand and pronounce and what does it matter anyway whether you know the Latin for a plant. But I find it a fascinating addition to my love of plants and it can prove quite useful to know a few words of Latin when it comes to understanding plants.
Several years ago I decided to go back to college and study horticulture. Initially I did a garden design course where the tutor was very keen on us learning the Latin names for plants. I then went on to do some RHS courses where learning the Latin names was an essential part of curriculum. I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy having to learn a huge number of Latin names on the off chance they would be on the exam paper (they weren’t) but it did open up a fascinating world.
Before the mid 18th century a plant could be known by many different names. This meant it was difficult to know if you were talking about the same plant and this became even more problematic with the trade in plant material and different languages. Even today bilberries are known by many different names across just the UK, including whinberry, wimberry, blaeberry and whortleberry. Imagine if that was the case with all plants. Well we have the Swedish botanist Linnaeus to thank for the way we know plants today. In the mid 18th century he set about classifying the whole living world. I wonder if he sat down at breakfast one day and actually thought, ‘I’m going to give everything living thing 2 names and put them into related groups’. That is quite a task, rather puts my sorting through my seed packets into perspective! He devised a system whereby the first name or Generic name is like our surname and then the second name, the specific epithet, is like our Christian name.
A lot of the names are derived from Ancient Greek but were Latinised and what a lot of people don’t realise is that there are actually using these ‘proper’ names quite often. Cosmos and Clematis are both from Greek and Verbena is the Latin name for Vervain.
Apart from the idea that one man devised a system over 250 years ago that works so well, I love the idea that if I know just a few pieces of Latin I can understand a bit about that plant when I see its name on a label. For example, Chimonanthus praecox comes from the Greek cheima for winter and anthos for a flower and, if as to emphasise this plants main attribute even more, praecox means early, referring to its early flowering. I could see this label on a nondescript plant in a garden in summer and know that it did its thing in the winter. This isn’t to say the names are always quite as useful, those named after the person who discovered them, for instance. But, if you know that siberica means from Siberia then that will give you some understanding of the conditions that plant grows in.
So embrace the Latin, you never know what you might discover.
I can recommend the book Plant Names Simplified by Johnson and Smith, published by Old Pond Publishing.Available from Amazon. It is an excellent little book which is really a glossary containing over 1000 entries of plants commonly found in gardens.