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.
elaine rickett said:
I didn’t realise that you quite so learned – I love the Latin names of plants even though I don’t know what they mean – I think for most of us gardeners it is just something you pick up along the way.
What an interesting post. I know a few of the Latin names, but haven’t a clue as to what they mean or indeed how they’re supposed to be pronounced.
Interesting post … made me think. I was brought up by my mother – very keen gardener – to always use the Latin names wherever possible. I used to rebel, though…
But the reason why really came home to me when she and I were in what was then Soviet Central Asia, and she got talking to a very keen gardener. Ma’s Russian was very rusty indeed, but they communicated quite successfully in Latin plant names. Very surreal.
Did you enjoy the RHS courses overall? I’ve picked up a few bits and pieces of the meaning behind the latin, and I do find it useful and interesting, but not enough to study it! Add to that the fact that my memory is shot… Mind you, because I came to gardening comparatively late on and almost entirely through books in the early stages, I often find I know the latin names and not the common equivalent – which has got be labelled as a snob in the past, but it is purely accidental. Thank goodness for Linnaeus though, imagine trying to work your way through different nursery catalogs before there was a system to plant naming!!
Janet, I enjoyed aspects of the RHS courses. It was good to be with a group of like minded people and I did learn some fascinating and useful information. The main problem was the line between horticulture and agriculture for the RHS was very thin and quite often we were learning a lot more about the large scale commercial growing of food crops, which no one on the course was ever going to use. I could tell you an amazing about about food packhouses and storage facilities but I won’t bore you.
of course loads of them seem to change all the time as they reclassify them, which makes things confusing
It’s all Greek to me! No seriously my mum was a passionate gardener and know all the names for a plant whereas I’m quite happy to use the common name whenever possible, that is providing I even remember it.
Can you, or anyone else tell why we only use the latin names for flowers and not vegetables, etc.
Fascinating post and comments! xx
That’s a really good point Flighty. I have no idea why we don’t call carrots by their Latin Daucus carota. Would love to find out if anyone has any theories.
Pauline Mulligan said:
Like Janet from Plantalicious, I came to gardening late and did most of my learning from books and therefore Latin names were what I learned. Also feel that sometimes the name gives you a clue as to where to plant your new purchase, which is sometimes missing from the label, or an indication of how the plant will grow. Neighbours still laugh at me but do I care…not really!
I have that little black book in my bookcase Wellywoman and refer to it often. Was nearly put off getting to grips with Latin names as the language was part of my secondary school education for two years. I sadly gave it up at the first chance – fed up with all the declining and opted for art – easier and less homework 🙂 I have never done any formal horticultural courses or training but have always found it fun to learn both the common name (which as you can say can differ from place to place) as well as the Latin name. Getting to grips with it helps you to understand the characteristics of plants, is useful if ever visiting gardens abroad and above all the language is at the root of so much everyday English.