Why do they talk like that?

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?

Oakleaf Hydrangea fall foliage

Oakleaf Hydrangea aka
Hydrangea quercifolia
The specific epithet “quercifolia” describes the foliage of this plant: “querci-” meaning oak and “folia” meaning foliage.

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 the common names can be charming (think pussy toes, hearts-a-burstin’, and wood vamp), the botanic names make sense.  When learning to identify hundreds of plants during my training at Longwood Gardens, from conifers, to small flowering trees, to perennials, 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 example Common name Notes
Places
Americana Of America Calicarpa americanaTilia americana American hornbeamAmerican linden
Canadensis Of Canada Cercis canadensisCornus canadensis RedbudBunchberry Bunchberry is a groundcover in the same genus as our familiar flowering dogwood, Cornus florida.
Caroliniana Of the Carolinas Carpinus caroliniana American hornbeam Plants with this specific epithet may be native to our area
Japonica Of Japan Acer japonicaLonicera japonicaPieris japonica Japanese mapleJapanese honeysuckleAndromeda
Pennsylvanica Of Pennsylvania Fraxinus pennsylvanica Green Ash Native to our area
Virginiana Of Virginia Magnolia virginianaItea virginicus Sweetbay magnoliaVirginia sweetspire Plants with this specific epithet may be native to our area
Colors
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.
Leaves/flowers
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