The Language We Use To Know About Plants

Like Magnolia, Begonia, Iris and a few others, the genus name Camellia has been assimilated into English, rather than having a common name assigned to it. “A handful of iconic garden plants have names that are easy to pronounce and spell, and are so widely used that they’re devoid of dread,” said Ross Bayton, the author of “The Gardener’s Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names.” Drawing from “The Gardener’s Botanical.”

Thanks to Margaret Roach for this review, whose subtitle–Latin might seem like an obscure, inscrutable language for naming plants. But it can open up the botanical world in ways you can’t imagine–is its central recommendation. Things I can’t imagine, maybe especially when I need to make a Plan B for planting, are a welcome resource these days. As always, if you decide to acquire this book and can do so from an independent bookseller you will be doing the world a favor:

Simply knowing a plant’s genus, such as Hydrangea, doesn’t tell you the whole story. The second word in the botanical Latin binomial — the species name or specific epithet modifying the genus — offers further clues, perhaps describing the plant’s place of origin or its appearance. In the case of Hydrangea macrophylla, it means big leaf. Drawing from “The Gardener’s Botanical.”

The plants are trying to tell us something — if only we’d learn their official language, botanical Latin.

“I am the Allium with just one leaf,” says Allium unifolium. (Get it?)

“I am the juniper that carpets the ground,” says Juniperus horizontalis (whose alternate name, Juniperus prostrata, nails its appearance, too).

And Aster alpinus chimes in: “My ancestors hailed from above the timber line — you know, like, the Alps. I won’t appreciate some sodden, clayey spot in your garden.”

Not all plant names offer such easy clues about traits like appearance, preferred conditions or place of origin. It’s worth digging deeper, though, and I’m grateful to several formally trained old-school horticulturists, my first garden teachers, who used botanical Latin confidently.

Now, a recent book called “The Gardener’s Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names” is nudging me to sharpen my skills. The author, Ross Bayton, earned his doctorate in plant taxonomy at the University of Reading and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in England, and is now the assistant director of the public Heronswood Garden in Kingston, Wash.

Dr. Bayton learned his first botanical Latin word around the age of 11, from his mother’s beloved sweet peas, Lathyrus odoratus, a plant she grew every year.

“I realized that odoratus meant fragrant, and then I saw that word on other plant labels in my own garden, like Viola odorata, Galium odoratum,” he recalled. “And that kicked it all off for me.”

In his garden, he then connected the dots of mollis, for soft (Acanthus mollis, Alchemilla mollis), and its opposite, spinosa, for spiny (Acanthus spinosus, Aralia spinosa). Now they join odoratus among the 5,000-plus entries in his illustrated dictionary.

Our proposal: A little botanical Latin self-study might make better use of some of your garden off-season hours than rewatching that TV series you already rewatched (although I may do that, too). A plant’s Latin name is the only way to know for certain what you’ll be getting when you buy plants in the spring, as common names vary by region — but you have to know how to decode some of the words.

Start with the plants in your garden, Dr. Bayton suggested, or even just learn to address your houseplants by their proper names.

This course delivers a bracing memory-fitness test, and a bit of a treasure hunt. Give in to the arcane, and be empowered: Get to know your plants, and the sometimes-nerdy snippets of the history of our human relationship with them, too…

Read the whole story here.

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