For gardeners, botanical Latin is a language worth learning

Kenneth Palmer

If you’ve been thumbing as a result of a gardening catalog or purchasing at a nursery, you’ve very likely found two names assigned to each plant, a popular title and a botanical title, the latter of which may possibly study like a kind of pretentious, unpronounceable gibberish.

That’s botanical Latin, and its reason is to help you confirm that the plant you provide household is what you intend to purchase.

The widespread name – normally a cutesy promoting moniker – can get you into hassle. Which is mainly because widespread names are just nicknames for vegetation. A solitary popular name can be shared by lots of plants. And just one plant can have several frequent names.

Confusion generally ensues.

The perennial cranesbill, for instance, is the correct Geranium, when the annual container plant that carries the popular title geranium is basically a Pelargonium. And dependent on the place you stay, you may possibly know my favourite perennial as blazing star or gayfeather. But contact it Liatris spicata, and anyone in just about every area and region will know which plant you’re conversing about.

This title sport was to start with resolved in the 1700s by Swedish botanist, zoologist and medical professional Carolus Linnaeus. His operates “Systema Naturae” and “Fundamenta Botanica” created principles for classifying and naming plants in botanical Latin — a language he built up, and with which all gardeners really should have at the very least some familiarity.

Linnaeus devoted his everyday living to assigning each plant and animal of his time a two-section, or binomial, title consisting of a genus and species, generally based on the visual appeal of their reproductive sections. As you could possibly think about, some of those names lifted 18th-century eyebrows.

Look at that avocado is the Aztec phrase for testicle. Vainilla, the orchid pod from which vanilla comes, is derived from the Latin term “vaina,” which usually means vagina (have you ever definitely looked at an orchid flower?).

Linnaeus’ Intercontinental Code of Botanical Nomenclature dictates that a plant name start with a capitalized genus, adopted by a decreased-circumstance species, then possibly a wide range (if the natural way transpiring), cultivar (if created by a breeder) or hybrid title (if it’s a cross concerning two plants, indicted by an “x”).

The code is controlled by the Intercontinental Botanical Congress, which has been convening every six decades since 1900 to examine and make a decision on naming challenges lifted by new genetic research and scientific conclusions. Immediately after all, Linnaeus didn’t have a microscope or DNA tests lab, which would have served definitively identify which vegetation ended up similar.

The Congress, which meets up coming in Madrid in July 2024, employs these modern day equipment to determine which vegetation to reclassify or rename.

Bleeding hearts, after officially referred to as Dicentra spectabilis, have been moved into the freshly developed Lamprocapnos genus a number of many years back, and snapdragons, initially in the Antirrhinum genus, were transferred into the plantain household, Plantaginaceae, alongside with Digitalis, Hebe and Penstemon.

But nobody regulates prevalent names, and that can switch plant identification into a Tower of Babel, wherever Rudbeckia hirta is recognized to some as black-eyed Susan, to other people as yellow-oxeye daisy and to other people nevertheless as gloriosa daisy.

And the possible for error does not conclusion there, as when the exact same frequent name is shared by several crops. Ask a garden middle staff for a snowball bush, and you could walk out with Hydrangea arborescens or Viburnum plicatum. It is a crapshoot.

So it pays to review up — or at least do a little investigation ahead of getting crops or swapping seeds.

Plug a widespread title into the Royal Horticultural Society’s absolutely free on line Garden Plant Finder ( isles/vegetation/look for-sort ) and get a listing of relevant botanical names -– or vice versa. The outlined suppliers are British, but the suitable terminology adheres to no borders.

And if you genuinely want to nerd out, reduce you in the Global Plant Names Index (, a collaboration between The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew The Harvard University Herbaria, and The Australian Countrywide Herbarium.


Jessica Damiano writes typical gardening columns for The Associated Push. She publishes the award-profitable Weekly Dirt Newsletter. Signal up in this article for weekly gardening ideas and guidance.


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