I CAME, I SAW, I LEARNED
I often hear people complain about the difficulty of learning the Latin names of plants. It can be a daunting task, but there are good reasons to at least try to familiarize oneself with the system of using Latin names, also known as binomial nomenclature.
First, there are many plants that do not even have a common name. So, the only way to identify that plant would be by using the binomial (two word name) assigned to that plant by botanists. This may not be true with the most used garden plants, but it is possible to come across a plant that is so unusual, or underplanted, that it does not have a common name.
Second, common names can be misleading. If you are looking for sage, do you mean garden sage (Salvia officinalis) - or do you mean sage brush (Artemisia tridentata) - another genus altogether? Or do you mean one of the many varieties of ornamental sage (Salvia elegans - pineapple sage) or some other sage such as the native blue sage (Salvia azurea)? The only way to be sure you have the correct plant for your needs is to understand the Latin name.
Third, a plant name in one locale can be something completely different in another. If you asked for a daisy, meaning the common oxeye daisy, you would need to know that it is Leucanthemum vulgare. If you were getting the plant from a friend, or getting the plant from a nursery that was not up to date in its nomenclature, it might be called Chrysanthemum leucanthemum. If a shasta daisy was what you were after, you would need to ask for L. x superbum. However, if you wanted the bedding plant known as English daisy, you need Bellis perennis. Confused yet?
It was interesting for me, in researching this article, to find that botanical Latin is a derivative of the classical Latin I learned in high school. Many terms in botanical Latin are unknown in classical Latin, for example "mycelium" has no antecedent in the Latin spoken by Cicero. Other words from the classical Latin have been used in a different sense, like the words calyx (shell or husk) and stigma (which could mean cut, dishonor, or disgrace). For thousands of years, Latin has been the way that scientists, writers, doctors, and others could speak to each other in a universal language.
The International Code of Nomenclature (ICN) adopted Latin as its preferred language since Latin is neither a spoken language nor used by any country. It was also widely used in the sciences and by learned people at the time that Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus developed the binomial system in the sixteenth century. He based his system on the works of Swedish botanists Gaspard and Johann Baukin, brothers who first described and classified thousands of plants, grouping them into herbs, trees, and shrubs.
Basically, the system uses two words to describe each plant. These words are ALWAYS written in italics. The first word, or genus, is always capitalized. It can be used alone, if there is no specific type being referred to. The second word is the sepcies or specific epithet, is never cpaitalized and never used alone. It is also a clue to a characteristic germane to that plant. It could be leaf shape, flower color, height, where it comes from, or a host of other possibilities. Knowing Latin will give you an idea of what the plant might look like. Aurea means yellow or golden; flora plena means with double flowers; nana or pumila means small; lanceolata means lance-shaped leaves; maritima means near the sea. For a great list of these epithets, go to:
ADDITIONS TO THE TWO-NAME SYSTEM
In addition to the two names, there are often other words and abbreviations you will encounter in the nomenclature world. These are a few:
* subsp. - a separate population in a specific area that is not quite the same as the species (no italics)
* var. - a distinct variant to the species occurring in the same population (no italics)
* cultivar - a cultivated variety or selection that does not occur naturally. Cultivars are generally noted by being enclosed with single quotes and capitalized but not italicized.
*sp. - an unknown or unspecified species (no italics)
*spp. - referring to two or more species (no italics)
* L., alone or with other names - this refers to the last name of the person who described the plant. Most often seen is L. for Linnaeus. If a subsequent botanist decides a plant belongs in a different genus (based on new knowledge or methods), the original author is placed in parentheses and the second author's last name is inserted after it.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'
With rapid advances in DNA testing, microbiology, and other assessment methods. Botanists are realizing that many plants need to be recategorized to truly reflect their place in the taxonomic world. The herb world is agog with the discovery that rosemary - Rosmarinus - should actually be in the Salvia genus. Because of new and more accurate information, plant names are changing faster than ever, leaving us all scratching our heads as we try to learn the new names. Don't worry too much, though, as it will take nurseries and garden centers time to catch up, so for now, a rosemary will still smell as sweet.
BRUSHING UP ON LATIN,
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