it’s time to learn some botanical latin (and why), with ross bayton
I’M GRATEFUL that when I began gardening, I fell in with a bunch of plant nerds who spoke not in common names but in botanical Latin, and turned me on to oddball mail-order nurseries whose entire lists were likewise written that way. Necessity was therefore the mother of invention.
I absorbed at least a rudimentary command of the official language of plants, and my only regret is that I didn’t learn even more. Now, thanks to the fun I’ve been having dipping over and again into the new book called “The Gardener’s Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names,” I’m further sharpening my skills, because botanical Latin opens up a world for gardeners willing to try learning some of it.
What can a gardener learn from studying botanical Latin? Ross Bayton, a former editor of the BBC’s “Gardeners World Magazine” created the “The Gardener’s Botanical,” and when we spoke recently, he answered that question and more. (Photo of Ross, below, from the Heronswood garden website. Ross recently became assistant director at Heronswood, the public garden near Kingston, Washington.)
Read along as you listen to the May 11, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
botanical latin, with ross bayton
Margaret Roach: Yeah, so what an undertaking, this encyclopedia. More than 2,000 plants, 5,000 entries, or terms, and hundreds of beautiful botanical illustrations.
Ross Bayton: It was quite a work. When the publisher came to me and said, “Well, we have room for about 5,000 words. Which ones are you going to choose?” Well, it was quite an option, as there are millions of plant names out there, so I had to winnow it down to the cream of the crop.
Margaret: Yeah, well I’ve been enjoying it, as I said in the introduction, dipping back in and really smiling to have the provenances of… the definition, so to speak, of many of my favorite plants revealed. But before we get to that, I just wanted to know a little bit about why—this is not new territory for you, you’ve written other things about plant genealogy so to speak, why is this important to you? Where did you get into this in your life?
Ross: Well, I started gardening as a kid. I had a pot of English ivy that I grew in my room. My parents were in the military and we traveled around a lot, so I didn’t have a garden, but I grew a lot of houseplants. And I started by dipping into a book that my mom had got from “Reader’s Digest.” That was an encyclopedia of houseplants.
Ross: And it had the Latin names there and some beautiful illustrations. And the words just seemed to stick in my mind in a way that other things don’t. I tend to forget people’s names. I’m really good at remembering plant Latin names, and once I started to see similarities between one name and another, I started to be curious about what those connections were. So, my Mom is a big fan of sweet peas and they are Lathyrus odoratus. And I realized that odoratus meant fragrant, and I saw that word in other plant names in my own garden.
Ross: So, That was the spring that kicked it all off.
Margaret: That got the dots connecting, yeah?
Margaret: So, for gardeners listening, so why Latin anyway, and is it truly even Latin or is there some Greek in here? Tell us a little bit about why botanical Latin, why it evolved, why it was “invented,” a little history.
Ross: What we call botanical Latin would not be understood by people living in ancient Rome who spoke Latin of that day. Basically what happened is that in the 18th and 19th centuries, scholars at universities, they taught entirely in Latin. Understanding and learning this language was thought to provide agility of mind for the students.
But also a lot of universities were connected to the church, and many churches also gave their… The Bible was written in Latin and many of their liturgies were also given in that language. So, it was very common for scholars to understand this particular language, and therefore it seemed a natural thing when they started to name plants to use a language that they were already using in their day-to-day scholarly endeavors.
Margaret: Right. So, and then along came Linnaeus, yes? Eventually.
Ross: Yeah. Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist. Linnaeus is actually his Latin name, his Swedish name was von Linné, and like many of the scholars of his time, he taught in Latin and he had a broad interest in science. He was trained as a medical doctor, but he received plants and animals that were brought to him by sailors, by travelers, and he was really fascinated to try and classify them. And so he would give them names in Latin.
But the really important thing that he did was he gave them a two-part name. Now, before Linnaeus, all the names that were given to plants and animals were actually long descriptions of those plants or animals in Latin. That’s pretty cumbersome. When you’re dealing with a plant, you don’t want a name that has eight or 10 words in it. What Linnaeus did was he shortened these down to two words and we now call those two-word names, the Linnaean binomials, and they’re the names that you find in the book.
Margaret: Right. You mentioned sailors a minute ago, and so this from the early 18th century onward was the age of plant exploration. It wasn’t just Europe where he was, it was people were bringing things in from other places, and there were unknown things. So, different people would be communicating with people in other countries. And I think in the book, one of the essays up front says something like, “One great advantage of Latin is its universality, that it’s not the language of any one nation.” And was that also part of the motivation?
Ross: Absolutely. Nobody really speaks Latin today and so it’s the language that can be used by people in any country. But Linnaeus had an advantage in that he started his work in Sweden, and Sweden doesn’t really have an awful big flora. It doesn’t have very many different species of plants. If Linnaeus had been born in central Africa, or in South America, where plants were much more common, much more diverse, it’s entirely possible that he just would have been so confused by this great diversity that he would have never come up with the system that he did. Because he only had to work on a small group of plants, he was able to develop a system and then refine it as people brought plants to him from other parts of the world.
Ross: So, he began in Europe, but this taxonomy that he began, quickly began to spread across the world as Europeans and others were exploring further afield.
Margaret: And since it wasn’t the language of any one nation, it was a shared language for all of these people.
Ross: Absolutely. Nobody felt excluded by that. It didn’t belong to one person and so everybody could use it, and today they still do. If you read a botanical paper from China, almost the only part that you’ll be able to read, if you’re an English speaker like me, is the Latin names.
Margaret: Right. So, we mentioned the system for naming plants, and of course it was for other organisms as well. And I read an essay you wrote recently, or maybe it’s excerpted from the book, where you muse about our Latin name, Homo sapiens, and how it doesn’t sound very fancy compared to some of the plant names that are more elaborate, but until you understand what it translates. Which is “wise man,” yes? So, we gave ourselves a very good name. [Laughter.]
Ross: Yes, we were quite modest. Homo sapiens is a name that was given by Linnaeus and in fact Linnaeus’s body actually remains the type specimen for the human species, because when he named humans, he based it on himself. So, he will forever be remembered as the original human, at least where taxonomists are concerned.
Margaret: So, he’s not pressed in a herbarium slide, but he is the type specimen, yeah?
Ross: He is the type specimen in his tomb in Sweden.
Margaret: [Laughter.] So, early on when I was first learning from much more scholarly individuals, plant friends, I was paralyzed. I was afraid to say the words out loud because they looked so difficult. And I was told, “Don’t worry Margaret, it wasn’t a spoken language really. It was okay to just have at it and try to pronounce stuff and do my best,” which is always going to be better than a common name. So, does pronunciation matter?
You give guidelines, but I think you let us off the hook and say “don’t worry,” also. Is that correct?
Ross: You are absolutely correct, Margaret. I always tell people not to worry about it. There are purists who might adopt certain pronunciations for certain parts of botanical Latin, but my feeling is that I would rather people were using the names and understanding them than sticking to some rigid system of pronunciation. You say Clematis. I said Clematis. I think you’re easily understood whatever the way.
As I began doing this as a kid, I would say names in all sorts of different ways. So, one of the ones I used to mispronounce was the daylilies genus, Hemerocallis, but then when I grew up and started speaking to people about it, I realized that everybody actually called it Hemerocallis.
Margaret: Yes. [Laughter.]
Ross: It’s a subtle difference, and most people understood what I was saying, but until I started speaking with other people, I didn’t realize that there were other ways that you might say it. But in truth it doesn’t really matter. Most people will understand what you’re saying.
Margaret: O.K. So, I think one of the big incentives for learning botanical Latin is how much it can tell you about the plants it describes, to be clearer than common names of course. And you have lots of great examples of how confusing it can be to use common names. Maybe you want to give us a quick one just to illustrate that.
Ross: Well, probably the prime example is the word bluebells. Now, if I say bluebell to you, you immediately get a picture in your mind of a plant with a blue bell-shaped flower. Absolutely fair enough. The trouble is there are bluebells in Australia, there are bluebells in California, there are bluebells in Europe, and there are bluebells in Asia. Because that name is so familiar, people who traveled and explored in other countries tended to give that name to other plants that looked similar, but in fact a lot of these plants were not related at all.
We tend to think of Latin names purely as labels, but the people who assigned them, they are actually keen that these names reflect something of the relationships of the plants, what is related to what. And so it’s really important that these different plants that are not related have their own unique name, and not an English name that is really open to confusion. And of course, if you’re growing a bluebell that came from Europe and you’re growing a bluebell that came from Australia, then the chances are those two plants are going to need quite different care in your garden. They’ll need different light regimes, different temperatures, and so, just using the word bluebell could potentially lead to you giving your plant treatment that it doesn’t want.
Margaret: Yeah, so as I said, learning Latin can tell you a lot about the plant being described. The plant you’re looking at, the plant you’re working with or considering buying. It can be physical traits, it can be stories about its origin, where it’s native to maybe, or the kind of environment. Or sometimes even things like who it honors or who discovered it. So, lots of different… For instance, reading the book, I was reminded and I had totally forgotten a plant I’ve grown forever and ever, that the butterflies in my garden love, Verbena bonariensis, the tall verbena, translates as “the verbena from Bueno Aires,” yes?
Ross: Absolutely, and while the great majority of plant Latin names are descriptive, so they describe maybe what the plant looks like or where it came from or the kind of habitat that it grows in, there are lots of other different types of plant names. Commemorative plant names that honor the person who discovered it, or perhaps the person who funded the mission that discovered it. There are plants named after politicians, plants named after botanists, plants named after botanist’s wives.
So, while the information contained in plant Latin names isn’t always directly helpful to the grower, there are a lot of fascinating stories there that explain how the world was explored and how plants were discovered.
Margaret: Right. Like species names like horizontalis or giganteum. Those are the easy ones.
Ross: Or things like… So, habitat ones are very common. So, palustris, which means of the marsh. Plants that have palustris in their name are likely to need a damp soil. Or montana or alpina, which mean of the mountains—those plants are going to likely need good drainage and full sun. So, some of those names really clue you in to the habitat the plant came from, and if you can replicate that in your yard, then your plant is much more likely to be successful.
Margaret: Right. So, maybe we could have some fun with some… I think you used an example in one spot about Hydrangea, and maybe you say Hydrangea [laughter], I don’t know which way you say it, but whatever, makes no difference. But it’s a genus with what, around 70 species or something? And so, just giving us an example about that one, and maybe one species within it? Yeah.
Ross: Hydrangea is an interesting one because Hydrangea has just become the English name that we use for the plants. A lot of people are scared of Latin names and can’t pronounce them or can’t spell them, but a few of them like hydrangea, magnolia, camellia are actually Latin names, just we’ve forgotten that they are and they’ve just become the English name. In the case of hydrangea, what it means is water vessel, and that seems like a really strange name. But if you look at the fruits of a hydrangea, which tend to be very small and brown, they look roughly the shape of the water vessels that were really commonly used in ancient Rome, and that’s where the name comes from. So, that’s the hydra part is the water and the angea at the end is the vessel. That’s where the name comes from.
But you were right, Hydrangea has a lot of different species and the name that follows the word Hydrangea will often tell you something about the plant. So for example, the big mophead hydrangeas are called Hydrangea macrophylla, and macrophylla means big leaf. And indeed, mopheads tend to have really big foliage. [Above, H. macrophylla from the book.]
Margaret: Right, or one of our Southeastern U.S. natives, the quercifolia, oakleaf hydrangea.
Ross: Absolutely, Quercus is the Latin name for oak, and folia means leaf. So, if you look at the leaf of an oakleaf hydrangea, it absolutely does look exactly how it sounds.
Margaret: Right, and actually I kind of love that group and there’s so many great… It’s not really a group of Latin names, but I love the Latin names that are saying to me the species name or specific epithet—I think that’s what we call the second word also…
Margaret: That I love the ones that say, “Hey, I’m the hydrangea that looks like the other plant.” And I love the ones that… So, there’s a Santolina, I think that’s rosmarinifolia or whatever. It’s the santolina with rosemary-like foliage. I love those. So, maybe some other examples of those. Those are fun.
Ross: They are, and sometimes they can get a little bit confusing. So for example, there is a native wildflower in the Eastern part of the U.S. that is called Anemonella thalictroides.
Margaret: Oh my goodness. I know. Confusing.
Ross: It is. So, and Anemonella refers to it looking a bit like an anemone.
Ross: Thalictroides means that it is a false thalictrum. Thalictrum is meadow rue, which is a related group of plants, so, that’s telling you something. So, this is the Anemonella that looks like a Thalictrum. But then a taxonomist came along and decided that actually not only does it look like a Thalictrum, it is a Thalictrum.
Ross: So, it’s now become the Thalictrum thalictroides, which means the thalictrum that’s not a thalictrum.
That’s pretty confusing, but on the whole a lot of plant names will give you a resemblance to another plant, partly because it makes it easier for you to identify. Also, partly because botanists tend to run out of names, and when they look at a plant and the first thing they see is a familiarity, it’s a really good way of coming up with a name without them having to think too hard.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Sometimes you learn the color of a plant or its foliage from the specific epithet, yes?
Ross: Absolutely. So, specific epithets may say caerulea, which means blue; flava that means yellow; or nigra that means black; album that means white. So, color descriptions are really common in plant names.
Margaret: Yeah. There was one entry, Cotinus, the smoke bush.
Ross: Yeah, that is a confusing one.
Margaret: Now what is that? In the book it explains that it comes from the word olive in Greek?
Ross: Yeah. So, when taxonomists were first starting to name plants, what they did quite a lot of the time was they would go back and look at the written works from ancient Greece. So, they would read through Aristotle and many others, and they would look for words that described plants. So, somewhere in one of these ancient Greek tomes, somebody found the word cotinus, meaning olive, and they took that and applied it to a completely different plant.
And it’s not uncommon. So, for example, if you’re familiar with the prickly pear cactus? The prickly pear cactus is called Opuntia, and opuntia came from Greek, and it meant a spiny plant from the city of Opus. Opus was a city in ancient Greece, and you don’t get prickly pears there because prickly pears comes from the Americas. And yet they thought, “Well, it’s a spiny plant, that will do, or give that to the prickly pear chaps.”
So, a lot of words that are just taken straight out of ancient Greek works don’t always exactly match the plant that they’d been given to, and in some cases we don’t even really know what they mean. Another good one is Clematis. Clematis just means… It’s a name taken from Greek that means a climbing plant. It may have had nothing to do with wild Clematis, it could have been any climbing plant, but it’s a climbing plant so we’ll apply it to this plant, which we now know as Clematis.[Below, C. montana from the book.]
Margaret: Right. Growth habit is another thing that sometimes the modifier, the species name or specific epithet, can give us an indication. Again, some of them are easy, it’ll say pyramidalis. However you say that, pyramidalis or globosis, like globe shaped or something. But some are more less intuitive than that, yes?
Ross: Well, a couple of the ones that are like, fastigiata. Now, fastigiata means generally column shaped and it’s quite often applied to trees like a number of different conifers. So, trees that have a narrow pencil like shape are often called fastigiate. The opposite of that is prostrata. Prostrata meaning that they lie across the ground. So for example, Juniperus prostrata is a ground covered juniper that carpets the floor.
Margaret: One that when you first hear it out loud, you don’t want to get tricked into thinking that all of them you can understand by translating them into English, and they’re not all soundalikes, because for instance, frutescens or fruticosis—it has nothing to do with fruit, does it?
Ross: Fruticosa means shrubby. So, you’ll often find it applied to plants that belong to a group that are not shrubby. So for example, Potentilla, and most potentillas are herbaceous perennials, but one species is not. It’s a shrub. And so, it’s called Potentilla fruticosa because it’s the only potentilla that really develops into a woody shrub. Most of the plants are herbaceous, but yeah, it’s a confusing one. You wouldn’t be the first person to be fooled by fruticosa into thinking that it’s going to be a fruit-bearing plant. [Below, Potentilla x macnabiana, a herbaceous perennial.]
Margaret: [Laughter.] So, my point in raising that one is that we must be willing to do some memorization, right? This language, we need to memorize. Yes.
Ross: Absolutely. I feel like I got off easily, because I tend to remember these words pretty readily, maybe I was destined to be a taxonomist. But once you start looking at plant Latin names, particularly the names of the plants in your garden, you’ll start to see that certain names come up again and again. Whether it’s names that refer to country like japonica, that’s a very common one—americana, virginiana, canadense, they’re all fairly obvious. Whether it’s the color ones you mentioned earlier, and a number of other different Latin names that are very widely used. You’ll just become very familiar with what they are, and you’ll start to remember them, and they will start to stick.
Margaret: Right. So, you just said the word taxonomist as if maybe you could have been one. But today, a lot of us gardeners get angry at taxonomists or whoever it is who’s renaming plants, because as recent changes in science’s capabilities have evolved, they keep changing things. And with the last couple of minutes, I just wanted to just have a brief understanding of what’s that about, how’s that happening?
Ross: Well, first I’ll say taxonomists are the people who classify plants. I’m often asked if I’m a taxidermist, that’s slightly different. [Laughter.] Taxonomy really, what scientists are trying to understand is what plant is related to what plants. And the names that they give reflect those relationships. So, when they find a new relationship, perhaps because they studied the DNA of the plants, they then will change the name, and they’re not really thinking about how this will impact the people who use the names, like gardeners and landscapers. So, they’re not specifically doing it to annoy us, but it is a useful endeavor for the scientists to be able to change their taxonomy to reflect the better knowledge of science that they have.
Margaret: Yeah, because of course plants, often from them are derived important medicinal things or chemicals or other things, so they have applications in science beyond our convenience as garden people. Yeah?
Ross: Absolutely and if you have a plant that has a useful drug in it, then the first thing you’re going to do is you’re going to look at related plants to see if they, too, also have those useful medicines and drugs in them.
Margaret: Well, Ross Bayton, I’m really having fun with this big, beautiful book and we should say where are the illustrations? They’re historic illustrations, aren’t they, where they come from?
Ross: Yes, all of them are originally derived from the Royal Horticultural Society’s archives, but many of them are publicly available and you’ll often see some of them online. They are proper botanical illustrations, so they show you some of the details, too, which is always fun.
Margaret: Beautiful. Well, I’m so enjoying the book, and I’m so enjoying talking to you. Thank you so much for making the time.
Ross: Absolutely. Thank you very much, Margaret.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 11, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).