Thursday, September 8, 2011

Latin Lives

Knowing the Latin names of plants is about communication, not snobbery.  As the scientific or “universal” language of botany, Latin enables us to communicate with gardeners in Egypt, Japan and Honduras, and hopefully, helps us find the plant we want at our local garden shop.

A plant’s scientific name is often descriptive of its appearance:
Hydrangea quercifolia literally has oak-like leaves;

Or tells us from where it originated:
Juniperus occidentalis is native to the western United States;

Or who “discovered” it:
Kalmia latifolia is one of many evergreens named after Pehr Kalm, an 18th century Scandinavian explorer who collected plants from all over eastern North America.

Still, some people find common names more appealing.  Butterfly Bush seems nicer than Buddleia davidii, and Golden Creeping Jenny has more charm than Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea'.

But then consider Pink Tickseed and Spotted Dead Nettle (Coreopsis rosea and Lamium maculatum respectively).
Not quite the same allure.

Also, things can get really confusing when the same plant has multiple common names.
Arkansas Blue Star, Arkansas Amsonia and Hubricht’s Blue Star are all Amsonia hubrichtii.

Or, completely different plants share the same common name.
I’ve heard Liriodendron tulipifera, Magnolia liliiflora and Magnolia x soulangeana all referred to as “tulip tree”… a slight problem if I am hoping for a spring-blooming ornamental and end up with a stately canopy tree that can grow 100’ tall.

So, knowing the Latin names of plants is important, right?  But pronunciations can be intimidating.  Sometimes we luck out and the common name is the scientific name:
Hosta = Hosta;
or is based on the scientific name:
Peony = Paeonia,
so we are used to hearing and saying these names.

But I’m often stumped by Latin pronunciations, especially when I have only read names in a book or article but not heard them spoken.  So what do I do?  I ask for help.  I ask friends.  I ask at my local garden center.  I ask Master Gardeners and commercial plant growers.  And I ask when I visit other gardens.  What is this plant?  And what is it called, scientifically or in the trade?

And I think of ways to remember how to pronounce these names.  I often make mistakes and am an object of ridicule.  That’s okay.  In the end, everyone needs help with the Latin… even the pros.

So, check back often for helpful hints on pronouncing some of the toughest names in botanical nomenclature… or at least the ones I’ve noticed everyone seems to struggle with a lot.

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