Latin Names

News Article

Do you panic when faced with Latin plant names? Contrary to the belief of many, Carl von Linne, the creator of botanical nomenclature, was trying to make things easier for plant lovers. His Latin names for plants often include an adjective that describes some physical attribute of the plant. Von Linne classified plants according to physical similarities and assigned each a standard two-part name, or binomial. Thousands of plants were categorized based on the structure of their sexual parts. He believed in the system so much that he Latinized his own name to Carolus Linnaeus.

The two parts of binomial nomenclature are the generic epithet, which names the genus and is always capitalized, and the specific epithet, which names the species and is usually lowercase. The generic epithet often honor the person who first found the plant. Other genus names can only be appreciated by those who know mythology. Genus names can also be physically descriptive. The specific epithet usually provides a good clue to the plant's looks or character. As you read plant catalogs and garden books, you'll notice several that are used over and over.

Cultivar names can be spotted by the single quote marks that surround them. Cultivars are often named for people or places, but a few plant breeders follow a theme like songbirds or Shakespeare. Other breeders go for poetic names or fanciful things.

Some commonly used specific epithet plant names include:

alba white flowers aurea chartreuse to yellow leaves
caerulea blue flowers canadensis from Canada or the northeastern United States
chrysantha yellow flowers contorta twisted, contorted
edulis edible grandiflora large flowers
grandifolia large leaves japonica from Japan
lutea yellow flowers macrophylla big leaves
maculata spotted martima of the sea
montana of the mountains nana dwarf
nigra dark occidentalis from the west, generally the Americas
odorata scented flowers officinalis sold as an herb
orientalis from the east, usually Asia paniculata flowers in panicles
pendula hanging pubescens hairy
pumila dwarf purpurea purple
racemosa flowers in racemes repens,reptans creeping, ground-hugging
rugosa wrinkled sanguinea bloody or red
scandens climbing sempervirens evergreen
spicata flowers on spikes stricta upright
sylvestris of the woods tomentosa wooly, downy

Unlike modern English, Latin has gender. Genera are mostly feminine because most early Latin speakers thought of plants as feminine. However, there are masculine, neuter and even plural genera. A case in point is alpina (feminine). Alpinum is neuter gender, alpinus is the masculine gender. All have the same meaning, alpine.

Even though many of you probably haven't taken a Latin course, learning the meanings of words can be fun. With frequent use and repetition, the names do eventually sink in. If this article has piqued your interest in Latin plant names, try these books. Dictionary of Plant Names: The pronunciation, derivation, and meaning of botanical names and their common-name equivalents by Allen J. Coombes, Timber Press, Inc. Gardener's Latin by Bill Neal, Algonquin Books. How Plants Get Their Names by L.H. Bailey, Dover Publications.

This article originally appeared in the April 7, 1995 issue, p. 40.

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