I used to work at a garden center, where the owner almost disdainfully talked about horticulturists as ‘Latin speakers’. I believe he thought people were snobbish, or were trying to appear highly educated when they used the botanical names for plants. If that is not the reason, why do people use a dead language, like Latin, when discussing plants?
The reason that you will hear most often, is that botanic names are specific. While there may be many common names for one plant, there is only one botanic name. For example, common names for our native Carpinus caroliniana include American hornbeam, blue beech, ironwood and musclewood, while a plant in the genus Amelanchier may be called serviceberry, shadbush, shadblow, or Juneberry. http://www.mortonarb.org/tree-collections/735-how-plants-are-named.html
Surprisingly, while I use botanic names to be specific about plants, I have found an additional benefit to “speaking Latin”. While common names can be charming (think pussy toes, hearts-a-burstin’, and wood vamp), botanic names make sense. When learning to identify hundreds of plants during my training at Longwood Gardens, the botanic names helped me remember these plants. Once you understand some Latin terms, you will find that they may appear across families and tell you about plant characteristics.
Another thing I learned at Longwood Gardens is that while Latin is pronounced phonetically, it is not truly a spoken language. I have heard plant experts pronounce the same botanic name in different ways. So don’t be intimidated by the pronunciation. Just sound it out.
One final note about botanic names; like people, every species has one name with two parts, (with a few exceptions like Cher, Madonna, and Prince). The difference is that in English, people have their given name first and their family name second. Plants have their group name (genus) first, and their descriptive name (specific epithet) second. I think of this as “last name first, and first name last.”
I have put together a chart below to demonstrate a few Latin terms, what they mean, and some examples using each term. Maybe after becoming familiar with a few terms, you will find yourself speaking Latin, like me.
|Latin term||Meaning||Botanic examples||Common name||Notes|
|americana||Of America||Calicarpa americana
|canadensis||Of Canada||Cercis canadensis||Redbud
|caroliniana||Of the Carolinas||Carpinus caroliniana||American hornbeam|
|japonica||Of Japan||Lonicera japonica
|pennsylvanica||Of Pennsylvania||Fraxinus pennsylvanica||Green Ash|
|virginiana||Of Virginia||Magnolia virginiana
|Alba||White||Quercus albaMorus alba||White oakWhite mulberry|
|Coccinea||Scarlet||Hibiscus coccineusQuercus coccinea||Scarlet Rose MallowScarlet Oak||Coccinea and coccineus are different forms of the same word|
|Purpurea||Purple||Echinacea purpurea||Purple coneflower|
|Viridis||Green||Crataegus viridisAesclepias viridis||Green HawthornGreen milkweed|
|Nigra||Black||Juglans nigraBetula nigra||Black walnutRiver birch|
|Rubra||Red||Acer rubrumQuercus rubra||Red mapleRed oak||Rubra and rubrum are different forms of the same word|
|Sempervirens||Semper=always, virens=green, an evergreen plant||Buxus sempervirensIberis sempervirensLonicera sempervirens||English boxwoodCandytuftCoral honeysuckle||One shrub, one perennial, and one vine. All are evergreen.|
|Campanula||Bell||Campanula species||Bellflowers||There are many flower species with the common name of bellflower that are not related to campanulas.|
|Cercis||Heart shaped||Cercis canadensis||Redbud||A tree found in Canada with heart shaped leaves|
|Cercidiphyllum||Cercis=HeartPhyllum=Leaves||Cercidiphyllum japonicum||Katsura-tree||A tree with heart shaped leaves, like a redbud, that is from Japan|
|Dendron||Tree||Rhododendron speciesOxydendendrum arboreum||RhododendronsSourwood||Rhododendron translates as Rose Tree.|
|Franklinia||Named after Ben Franlkin||Franlkinia alatamaha||Franklinia tree||This beautiful tree was found in 1765 on the banks of the Altamaha river in Georgia by John Bartram, and named for Ben Franklin. It is no longer found in the wild.|
|Grandiflora||Grand=largeFlora=flower||Magnolia grandifloraRosa grandiflora||Southern magnoliaGrandiflora Rose|
|Sylvatica||Of the woods||Fagus sylvaticaNyssa sylvatica||European BeechBlack gum|
|Verticillata||whorled||Ilex verticillataCoreopsis verticillataSchyadopitys verticillata||Winterberry hollyThread-leaf coreopsisJapanese umbrella pine||Leaves or flowers are whorled around the stem|