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For The Love Of Gardening: Botanical Latin



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“Botanical Latin”

By Sydney Eddison

I struggled mightily with Latin

as a high school student.

But today, botanical nomenclature

trips lightly from my tongue.

It is really very simple.

One of my favorite wildflowers

is the sunny yellow cowslip

that grows beside streams and

rejoices in the Latin name,

Caltha palustris, which can be

translated as marsh marigold.

Palustris means “of the swamp.”

The tree in my field

is a pin oak, Quercus palustris.

It, too, requires abundant moisture.

And there you have it—

botanical Latin in a nutshell!

You may wonder why gardeners should be interested in this long dead language. First of all, it is valuable for the very reason that it does not change at the drop of a hat, while our modern English language changes all the time. For instance, “cronyism” had a perfectly respectable meaning in the 19th century. A “crony” was simply a friend, a buddy, but the word turned bad in the mid-20th century when it came to mean “playing political favorites.”

Latin needs to be a fact of your gardening life so that you can find the specific plant that you want. All plants have names that are broken into two parts. The first part of the name refers to the major group of plants that share common characteristics. Let’s take the now-familiar pin oak Quercus palustris. There are many different kinds of oak trees, and they all belong to the genus, Quercus, but the swamp oak is pyramidal in outline. Although it can achieve 70 feet in height, its spread is a modest 25 to 40 feet, while the mighty white oak, Quercus alba can grow to 100 feet in height and spreads its huge horizontal branches as wide as it is tall.

I have seen a pin oak sapling grow to its full height over a period of 60 years. But the white oak in the field where I walk with the dog is probably more than a hundred years old already, and will still be in its prime when the dog and I are long gone.

These are only two examples from the genus Quercus. But I hope that it will give you an idea of how plant names work: First, the genus, the large group to which the plant belongs, followed by the specific name which focuses on its particular attributes.

Once you know the genus of a plant, the specific descriptions are easier to remember because they often give you useful information about the plant — we already know that Quercus palustris will be happiest where there is abundant water. Here are some other specific descriptions that you may encounter: The specific epithet, aurea, means “golden” in color; “cerulean” is sky blue; canadensis, as you might guess, is “from North America;” “chinensis,” from China; “japonica,” from Japan. The climate in the northern islands of Japan is similar to our own, and there are many Japanese plants that flourish in American gardens. In my garden, primroses (Primula japonica) send up tall stems encircled with outward facing pink and red flowers in tiers. They are stunningly beautiful and beloved by hummingbirds.

You can easily guess at many words used in specific epithets because they often refer places of origin; the color of either foliage or flowers; some are named for the plant hunter who first found the plant in the wild or to honor someone in the field of horticulture. Forsythia honors a gentleman named William Forsyth, superintendent of the Royal Gardens of Kensington Palace in the England.

As for the pronunciation of botanical nomenclature, your guess is probably as good as mine.

Love your gardening, ’til next time!

Sydney Eddison will regularly be contributing a column in the upcoming weeks. She has written seven books on gardening. In addition, she collaborated with the Color Wheel Company, on The Gardener’s Color Wheel: A Guide to Using Color in the Garden.

For her work as a writer, gardener, and lecturer, she received the Connecticut Horticultural Society’s Gustav A. L. Melquist Award in 2002; the New England Wild Flower Society Kathryn S. Taylor Award in 2005; in 2006, the Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut’s Bronze Medal. In 2010, her book Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older won the American Horticultural Society Book Award.

A former drama teacher, lifelong gardener, and Newtown resident for sixty years, Eddison’s love of the English language has found its most satisfying expression in four volumes of poetry: Where We Walk : Poems rooted in the soil of New England , 2015; Fragments of Time: Poems of gratitude for everyday miracles, 2016; All the Luck: Poems celebrating love, life, and the enduring human spirit 2018; and Light of Day: Poems from a lifetime of looking and listening, 2019.

—Hank Meirowitz photo
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