Forgive me for boasting, but I understand how Latin plant names work. Learning about botanical nomenclature is one of my proudest achievements (it’s up there with touch-typing and mastering choux pastry). But I also understand that a lot of people don’t get it at all. It looks confusing. And unnecessary. And what’s with all the italics and quote marks?
The first question a lot of people ask is why can’t we just use the common names? A daisy’s a daisy, right? Why bother with Bellis? Or should that be Erigeron? Or maybe Argyranthemum? You see, this is where it starts to get complicated. There are so many different kinds of daisies. Plus, common plant names often change from one UK county to the next, never mind once you start crossing international borders. The wildflower field scabious, for example, is also known as lady’s pincushion, gipsy rose and blue bonnets. So using the botanical name of a plant is the only way to guarantee people know exactly what you’re talking about, whether you’re at a garden centre, listening to Gardeners’ Question Time or researching which trees would be best for an open, windswept garden.
The botanical naming system used today was set up by Carl Linnaeus, a superbly organised 18th century Swedish biologist. Tired of his colleagues giving the same plants different names, he persuaded them to adopt his binomial system. This worked so well that it was taken up worldwide. Many of these names are perfectly logical, too. Take the spring climber Clematis montana: the first part of the name (the genus) groups the plant with others in the same family. The second part is the species of clematis, or branch of the family – montana meaning ‘of the mountains’. This is a particularly obvious example, but a lot of species names are just as easy to decipher, and prove handy for letting you know where a plant comes from and the conditions it prefers.
Here’s a short list of some of the more common species names, and their meaning:
acaulis: stalkless, or apparently so
aquatica: from water
aurantiaca: orange coloured
campestris: growing in the fields/plains
canariense: of the Canary Islands
carnea: flesh coloured
cordata: heart shaped
denticulata: finely toothed
floribunda: many flowered
fortunei: after Fortune, the plant collector
fulgens: glowing red
germanica: from Germany
italica: from Italy
latifolia: broad leaved
nobilis: noble, stately
palustris: of the marshes
parviflora: small flowered
praecox: early flowering
roseum: rosy coloured
sibirica: from Siberia
speciosa: handsome, showy
sylvatica: of the woods
tomentosa: with downy foliage
vera: true or typical species
wilsonii: after Professor E. H. Wilson
The last species name, wilsonii, is just one of many derived from names of plant hunters, and it’s worth giving a thought to the trials they went through so that we can plant the odd rhododendron in a pot, or experiment with a kiwi fruit in the conservatory.
Ernest Henry ‘Chinese’ Wilson, born in 1876 in Chipping Camden, was one of the world’s greatest plant hunters and botanists. He’s credited with bringing Eastern Asian botany to the West, introducing several hundred new species to our gardens, mainly from China, ‘the Mother of Gardens’. From 1899 to his death, he travelled to dozens of countries collecting thousands of plants, cuttings and seeds, and taking hundreds of photographs of trees, plants and forests. He dodged plague in Hong Kong (on a trip in search of the dove tree), fought off recurring malaria, and was badly injured by a landslide in west Sichuan while searching for the regal lily – only to be killed in a car crash in 1930, in Massachusetts. Among his introductions to the West are the kiwi fruit (Actinidia deliciosa), paperbark maple (Acer griseum), Clematis armandii and Berberis julianae, as well as many rhododendrons.
But back to plant names. And what about the part in inverted commas – Lathurus odoratus ‘Our Harry’, for example? ‘Our Harry’ is the cultivar, and it’s where plant breeders come in. Lavandula angustifolia (common lavender) is the original species. To create a cultivar a plant breeder (most probably) would have noticed a flower spike that was, say, a bit pinker than the others on the plant. This, he or she would have cut off and propagated to make new plants with pink flowers. This cultivar, or ‘cultivated variety’, was named ‘Rosea’.
Finally, a few words on pronunciation. These lines on cyclamen, from an old gardening periodical, prove it’s something that’s been pondered long and hard for many years:
How shall we sound its mystic name
Of Greek descent and Persian fame?
Shall ‘ye’ be long and ‘a’ be short,
Or will the ‘y’ and ‘a’ retort?
Shall ’y’ be ilightly rippled o’er,
Or should we emphasise it more?
In my opinion, the pronunciation of your Latin plant name really doesn’t matter. Get the basic understanding of botanical naming under your belt, feel the pride, then just give it a whirl. After all, you’re already well on the way to being understood by the whole world.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer