Gardener's Latin, a living language

Colosseum in Rome                                                               Joseph Tame/Flickr

Colosseum in Rome                                                               Joseph Tame/Flickr

Don't let anyone tell you that Latin is a dead language — it's alive and well and bandied about daily in the garden.

Some people get along just fine without knowing the Latin botanical names of the plants they grow. The common names in plain English are good enough for them, and they figure that folks who toss around Latin terms are just showing off.

There may be a certain snob value to learning plant Latin, but it's also the only way to describe plants with a precision understood by any gardener anywhere in the world. Besides, some plants have more than one common name, like erythronium, which is variously known as trout lily, dog-tooth violet and adder's tongue.

Some common names are applied to entirely different plants. When is a forget-me-not,  myosotis, not a forget-me-not? When it's a Chinese forget-me-not, cynoglossum.

Both sport tiny, porcelain-blue flowers, but there's a big difference between the two. Plants in the first genus, blooming primarily in the spring, are technically biennials but self-sow readily and may be treated as perennials; those in the second are summer-blooming annuals.

When you ask for an iris, what do you mean? A German (bearded) iris, the best-known kind; the Japanese type (Iris ensata); the water-loving yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus); the beautiful Siberians (Iris sibirica) ; or the so-called stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) , grown mainly for its bright orange fall seedpods? Make up your mind!

To be sure you know what you're getting, you have to have at least a passing acquaintance with plants' proper names. I make it a practice never to order from catalogs that fail to describe their offerings in botanical terms. What in the world is `Blazing Star,' or `Golden Sundrop' or `Cherry Sparkle?' In the long run, you're going to need a little Latin.

Botanical nomenclature dates back to the mid-1700s, when the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus created his scheme for naming plants, animals and minerals. In Europe of that era, Latin was the universal language of the educated. Since Linnaeus' system has endured, we're stuck with the Latin he used.

Carolus Linnaeus, bronze statue                       Chicago Botanic Garden

Carolus Linnaeus, bronze statue                       Chicago Botanic Garden

Here's how the naming protocol works: The genus, indicating a group of related plants, appears first and is capitalized; the species is an adjective, written in lower case, describing a particular member of the genus. These should be italicized as words of a foreign language.

Primula is the genus of primroses and Primula japonica is the kind native to Japan. Sometimes you'll see a third name indicating a subspecies or variety. Primula rosea grandiflora is a primrose with a big, rose-colored flower. See? This isn't so hard.

I have a lovely little lexicon of plant terms entitled "Gardener's Latin" (Algonquin Books). Compiled by Bill Neal, it decodes Latin descriptives.

Some are downright useful, like those describing the habitat plants enjoy. Ammophilus means sand-loving; sylvaticus indicates woodlands; and helodes translates to "of the bog." Others tell you something about a plant's habit of growth. Nanus indicates a dwarf species, repans a creeping form and pendulus a drooping or weeping one.

The flower descriptives are good, too. Highly desirable are plants that are floribundus (free-flowering), semperflorens (ever-flowering) or amabilis (lovely); less so are those labeled ferox (very thorny), ptarmicus (causing sneezing) or fatuus (worthless).

But then we veer off into names of questionable provenance. I'm not sure what plant could be described as blepharophyllus (fringed like eyelashes), or impudicus (shameful and lewd) or tipuliformis, (shaped like a daddy longlegs). And anyone who's acquainted with a species that's hircinus (smelling like a goat) should call me right away.

My personal favorite, though, is the Latin descriptive onopordum (I'm quoting Neal here): "literally`ass-fart, referring to the effect Scottish thistle has on donkeys that consume it." Well, alrighty.

Neal indicates what syllable in plant names should be accented, but when it comes to pronunciation, you're pretty much on your own. I've long since been corrected on some real misfires: Heuchera, a lovely shade plant, is hoo-ker-ah not hyew-cher-ah, and cotoneaster, a flowering shrub, is cah-tone-e-aster not cotton-Easter. 

Live and learn. I figure as long as I can spell binomials correctly, I'm in the name game. This Latin business can be vexans (puzzling and irksome). Stay calm — don't let it get you all tortus (twisted).