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What do Latin Plant Names Mean?

 

As the Latin language has been all but removed from the educational curriculum, it is less and less likely we are familiar with the botanical terms which form the very basis of the names for many of the plants we grow, or would like to grow, in our garden. An understanding of some of the basic words which form an intrinsic part of your plants’ names, and how those names have been derived, can prove a very useful skill set when it comes to both selecting and caring for our gardens. With this in mind, we have put together a synopsis of some of the salient points to assist you all.

In an article for one of the UK broadsheets in 2018 the famous botanist, James Wong, declared the Latin used for naming plants is not ‘real’ Latin. It is a “cocktail of Latin, Ancient Greek and a plethora of other languages from Russian to Mandarin that have been absorbed for good measure”. When viewed from this perspective the names seem a lot less daunting than the mental visions of Victorian schoolmasters drumming into scared pupils how to conjugate verbs and form grammatically correct sentences (for fear of a sharp rap on the knuckles with a ruler if incorrect clauses were chosen). Furthermore, James Wong rightly points out pronunciation of these complex words has been created by modern day purists; as those who used Latin as a daily language to communicate are long gone, and no sound recordings exist to clarify any anomalies – therefore it is strongly recommended you “say them how you like”!

Latin names are extremely useful when it comes to giving every plant a unique identity. Common names are more often the ones used yet these vary greatly from region to region and often between households. A definitive plant identity helps a great deal in clearing up any misconceptions, misunderstandings or plain errors - not just in your town or county but across the world. So, let us try to unravel what can, at first glance, seem quite complex.


Scientific Names


The Scientific Latin plant names help to reveal a plant’s identity by first describing the genus and then the species. The system is referred to as binominal (having two names) and was developed in the 1700s by a Swedish naturalist called Carl Linnaeus. He grouped plants into subcategories by identifying those with similar leaves, fruit or flowers to create an effectual ‘family tree’ for each variety. Each plant then has a genus name (like a surname) and a species name (like a first name). The only difference being these are truly unique, whereas there are, no doubt, several people named John Smith or David Brown in the United Kingdom as well as further afield. When you see a Latin name of a plant, keep in mind the genus (or surname) is listed first and followed by the species (or first name).


Unique Identity

 



As plant breeders continue to develop new varieties it becomes necessary to add more descriptive information to these names in order to ensure each plant has a unique identity. In this way the plant’s cultivar name has been added as an extra detail. This can be the name of the breeder, the place it was bred or a nod to its unique characteristic which has instigated the requirement for a new, additional name. In this way a name can, and often will, become quite long and thus where necessary abbreviations are used. The running order for Scientific Latin names will proceed as follows – Genus, Species, Subspecies, Variety then Cultivar. Not all names have each segment of information attached to them as the aim is to uniquely identify them with the shortest name possible.

Take, for example, Clematis armandii ‘Apple Blossom’. Clematis is the genus of the plant and relates to the Greek word ‘klema’ meaning to shoot. Armandii is the species name and relates to the plant collector from China; Father David Armand who discovered the species in the 18th century. ‘Apple Blossom’ is the variety and identifies this clematis as having features akin to apple blossom – mainly the pinkish blush to the white flowers. We can now understand the ‘shoot’ nature of clematis indicates they are vigorous, climbing plants which shoot out their stems to climb upwards. We also know all the ‘armandii’ species were discovered by Father Armand in China or have been bred since then as subspecies and different varieties or cultivars. A wealth of information from just a couple of words.

Clematis viticella ‘Dark Eyes’ on the other hand is the same genus but a different species, viticella translates as ‘small flowers’ so the blooms will be smaller in size and have a visual impact which bears some relation to ‘Dark Eyes’. This also means any plant which has ‘viticella’ in its name will have small flowers (or smaller in relation to the other plants in its genus).

 

Colours

 
alba White
aurea Golden
azur Blue
coccineus Scarlet
haema Blood Red
luteus Yellow
nigra Black
purpureus Purple
rosea Rose
rubra Red
virens Green
 

Form or Habit

 
contorta Twisted
globosa Rounded
gracilis Graceful
magnus Large
nana Dwarf
pendula Weeping
prostrata Creeping
reptans Creeping
viticella Small flowers
 

Origins or Habitat

 
alpinus Alpine
amur Amur River- Asia
canadensis Canada
chinensis China
japonica Japan
maritima seaside
montana Mountains
orientalis East Asia
sylvestris Woodland
 


Plant Information

 



With just a few key words the Scientific Latin name (or botanical name) can reveal an abundance of information about the plant without even reading all the description for the variety. Such naming overcomes the confusion which may be encountered over common names – for example there are 16 common names listed for Clematis vitalba by the RHS. We can, however, deduct from the name this is a shooting plant (klem) that will grow in the same fashion as all Clematis. We can also understand this clematis probably has small (viticella), white (alba) flowers - this is a lot of information to retrieve from two words! By the way, Clematis vitalba is a wild clematis which is prolific throughout the UK and one of its common names is ‘Old Man’s Beard’; sadly, regarded as an unwanted ‘weed’ by many.

Hopefully, this has unravelled some of the complications you may have encountered with the Latin used in the nomenclature of plants. Now you understand Latin naming, perhaps this may have excited you a little and made you curious about what, why and when other plants were named. Deciphering Latin names is an intriguing way to glean a greater understanding of your plants, their origins and requirements.

Happy decoding Haylofters and enjoy showing off your newly emerging understanding.

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