Sure, You Can Be taught to Converse the Language of Crops

Yes, You Can Learn to Speak the Language of Plants

The plants are trying to tell us something – if only we would learn their official language, botanical Latin.

"I am the allium with only one leaf," says Allium unifolium. (Got it?)

"I'm the juniper who carpeted the floor," says Juniperus horizontalis (whose alternate name Juniperus prostrata also nails its appearance).

And Aster alpinus interferes: “My ancestors came from above over the tree line – they know the Alps. I won't appreciate a sodden, loamy patch in your garden. "

Not all plant names offer such simple clues as to characteristics such as appearance, preferred conditions or place of origin. Well worth digging deeper though, and I'm grateful to several formally trained old school horticulturists, my first gardening teachers, who confidently used botanical Latin.

Now, a recent book called "The Gardener's Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names" takes me to hone my skills. Author Ross Bayton received his PhD in Plant Taxonomy from the University of Reading and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, and is now the Assistant Director of the Heronswood Public Garden in Kingston, Washington.

Dr. Bayton learned his first botanical Latin word at the age of 11 from his mother's beloved sweet peas, Lathyrus odoratus, a plant she grew every year.

“I realized that odoratus means fragrant, and then I saw that word on other plant labels in my own garden, like Viola odorata, Galium odoratum,” he recalled. "And that triggered everything for me."

In his garden he then connected the points of Mollis for soft (Acanthus mollis, Alchemilla mollis) and the opposite of Spinosa for sting (Acanthus spinosus, Aralia spinosa). Now they join odoratus among the more than 5,000 entries in his illustrated dictionary.

Our suggestion: a little botanical Latin self-study might make better use of some of your off-season gardening lessons than re-watching the TV series you've already seen again (although I can do that too). A plant's Latin name is the only way to know for sure what to get when buying plants in spring, as common names vary by region. However, you need to know how to decipher some of the words.

Start with the plants in your garden, suggested Dr. Bayton, or just learn to address your houseplants by their proper names.

This course offers an exciting memory fitness test and a little treasure hunt. Give in to the arcane and let yourself be strengthened: Get to know your plants and the sometimes nerdy bits of history of our human relationship with them.

And you are not being tested for pronunciation.

"It is not the language that is spoken in the streets of ancient Rome," said Dr. Bayton on the naming system formalized by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. "It is based on it, but it contains a lot of ancient Greek and mainly exists as a written language."

Gardeners on different continents pronounce Latin names in different ways. And while there is an “official” way (as Dr. Bayton lists in the book), he added, “Say it any way you want and most gardeners will understand. And if you're looking for plant care information online or in books, pronunciation doesn't matter. "

"Accuracy – knowing the correct name of a plant – is key to finding out anything about it," said Dr. Bayton, who offers the common name Bluebell as an example of the slippery tendency of inaccuracy.

Which bellflower? The native eastern wildflower Mertensia virginica or Hyacinthoides non-scripta, a bulb from Western Europe and England? The campanula, known as the Scottish bluebell, or the Australian, Texas, or California bluebells, each of which is a different genus?

In contrast to common names, which can be shared by several plants and vary regionally, the Latin name is universal.

But even if we know the genus, let's go beyond "my hydrangea" to the other word in the Latin binomial, the species name, or the specific epithet that modifies it. We come to Hydrangea quercifolia (translation: the hydrangea, the leaves of which are similar to those of an oak, whereby oaks are the genus Quercus) and help to distinguish them from Hydrangea paniculata (whose leaves are not).

"Hydrangeas are a large group and they don't all need the same treatment," said Dr. Bayton. "If you want to know how to prune one, there are four different ways. So it is not enough to know that it is a hydrangea."

(Speaking of which, here's a pop quiz or trick question: What is the name of the genus Hydrangea? Answer: There aren't any. "What allows a name to jump over that botanical Latin barrier and not be feared?" Dr. Bayton said about the list of such plants, which includes magnolia, rhododendron, camellia, iris, fuchsia, and begonia: “A handful of iconic garden plants have names that are easy to pronounce and spell and are so widely used that I'm not afraid. ”)

Sometimes inaccuracy can be not only impractical – ordered the wrong plant, pruned a plant incorrectly – but also potentially dangerous, he said. Although castanea (the true chestnut) and horse chestnuts (aesculus) share that one keyword in their common names and also some traits (both are deciduous trees with prickly fruits) they are not related, and the latter's fruits, also called horse chestnuts, are poisonous .

Most Latin names are descriptive – sometimes vivid. Toxicodendron (the genus of poison ivy, oak and sumac) and Urtica (nettles; Urtica means “burn”) mean danger: toxicity or the risk of urticaria, a skin rash.

A species name can have a slightly less terrifying trait like flower color. Yellow can be Flavus or Luteus, Citrinus (lemon colored) or Aureus (gold). Silver is Argenteus. Red is rubrum, as in the red maple (Acer Rubrum); pink, roseus. Shades of blue include azureus (sky) and darker caeruleus. Purple is Purpureus. White is Albus; black, nigrum (black pepper, piper nigrum).

Native habitats could instead be highlighted by descriptors such as Sylvatica (of the forest) or Palustris (marshland), Maritima (sea) or Aquatica (in the water).

Some plants speak of their geographical origin. Various East North American natives are nicknamed canadensis or virginiana. But occasionally this fails: Scilla peruviana is not from Peru, even though she traveled on a ship called Peru from her southwestern European or northwestern African homeland, said Dr. Bayton and confused the botanist who had named it. The rules of botanical nomenclature say that the oldest valid species name sticks, so it's always Peruvian.

There are even the occasional anagrams in which an existing generic name is shuffled to form a new, botanically related name: Saruma is a cousin of the better known Asarum, like the native ground cover ginger Asarum canadense.

"Sometimes taxonomists just have fun with us," said Dr. Bayton. "Like the one who named a genus of cactus from Argentina Denmoza because it comes from the province of Mendoza."

A subset of plant names – both genera and species – are reminiscent of the discoverer who discovered them, or perhaps the person who funded the mission on which they were found.

"There are plants that are named after politicians, after botanists, after botanists' wives," said Dr. Bayton. "While the information contained in Latin names is not always directly helpful to the gardener, there are many fascinating stories that explain how the world was explored and how plants were discovered."

No wonder they are leaning strongly towards Europe, where the system originated. The Scottish botanist David Douglas (the nickname Douglasii, and also Douglasia, a genus of western North American primrose relatives) are among the frequently honored collectors. The prolific British explorer Ernest Henry Wilson, who sent thousands of plants back from China, is mentioned by Wilsonii (a magnolia and a picea among them) and Augustine Henry, an Irish plant worker, by Henryi (including Lilium Henryi).

Occasionally a local name has been used, such as Fatsia (from Japanese for eight fingers that describe the lobes of the leaves) and Kirengeshoma (for the Japanese words for yellow, lotus flower and hat that describe their flowers) for the Asian native plants. Catalpa sounds like botanical Latin, but it is actually an indigenous North American name for a genus of trees that includes two American species.

Women are also clearly underrepresented.

"Many of the men, and especially the honored women, are aristocrats or kings," said Dr. Bayton. "But it is far less common to find a working woman who is so honored."

Clivia is named after the Duchess of Northumberland, Charlotte Percy (nee Clive), the first person to bring this South African plant back to England. The newly crowned Queen Victoria inspired a genus of the same name: Tropical water lilies from the Amazon were called Victoria amazonica and exhibited in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in London.

In contrast, Mathiasella, a plant that Dr. Bayton in the book and growing in Heronswood, Mildred E. Mathias, a California botanist who graduated in 1929 and became the first president of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists in 1964. A botanical garden at the U.C.L.A. Campus is also named after her.

So why not rename the ones that are politically incorrect? The result would be taxonomic chaos.

"Today I would rather not see plants named after a foreigner who came in and named them when the plants were always known to the people who lived there," said Dr. Bayton. "I feel increasingly uncomfortable with it."

With new introductions, he said, we should give them a local name or just describe them by the chosen Latin name.

One that can help the gardener who eventually grows it.

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