Living with Latin

By Paul James

When my daughter was 12 or 13, she commented on how pretty a particular tree was as we strolled through the garden. “What’s it called?” she asked. “It’s Acer japonicum aconitifolium,” I said. She then repeated those three words three times, and now nearly 15 years later she can still pronounce the Latin name of the Full Moon Japanese maple perfectly. But why didn’t I just call it that in the first place?

Gardening geeks like me are sometimes accused of being pretentious when we use the Latin names of plants. But the truth is, all gardeners use Latin names routinely whether they realize it or not. For example, Begonia, Clematis, Crocus, Forsythia, Gardenia, Ginkgo, Hibiscus, Hosta, Hydrangea, and Iris, and Viburnum are all Latin names.

So here’s the deal: using the Latin name of a plant is the only way to positively identify the plant. Common names can be confusing because they may refer to more than one plant and often vary from one part of the country to another. As a result, if you were to ask for a ‘Snowball Bush’ at a nursery, the salesperson can’t be sure whether you’re asking for a particular type of Viburnum or a Hydrangea.

The method we use to name plants – known as binomial nomenclature -- was developed in 1753 by Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist who described and named thousands of plants and animals. In its simplest form, it consists of a genus name and a species name, although it may also include other descriptors.

Thus, in the case of the Full Moon Japanese maple, Acer is the genus for all maples, japonicum means it comes from Japan, and aconitifolium refers to the shape of its leaves (resembling those of another plant called monkshood, which is in the genus Aconitum).

Actually, learning a little Latin can be helpful, because the species names in particular can tell you something about a plant – its color, where it comes from, how it grows, etc. Here are a few are the more common species names used to describe plants.

alba -- white

aurea – golden or yellow

canadensis – from Canada

chinensis – from China

densiflora – dense flowered

grandiflora – large flowered

macrophylla – large leaves

pendula – hanging

rotundifolia – round leaves

viridis – green

vulgaris -- common

My favorite plant name has always been Ilex vomitoria, the Latin name for Yaupon Holly. Ilex is the genus for hollies, and vomitoria refers to the fact that a tea brewed from its leaves can make you quite sick. Who says botanists don’t have a sense of humor?