• Maureen Little

Latin? What use is Latin?

Tomorrow (31st August) is the last chance to enter the Free Draw. See below for details.

What’s the most useful tool a gardener can have?




All definitely have their merits. For me, though, the most useful tool I have is a working knowledge of horticultural Latin. A bit disingenuous on my part, perhaps, because it’s not a tool in the physical sense, but I certainly wouldn’t be without it.

Why? Well, the main reason is to avoid confusion. You know the old non-sensical saying ‘confusion reigned, and we all got wet’? Well, without the binomial system that Carl Linnaeus (1) introduced way back in 1753 in his tome Species Plantarum, we would still be thoroughly drenched to the skin when it comes to plant names.

For example, what is a ‘coneflower’? Is it an Echinacea or Rudbeckia? And ‘bluebell’ can mean two quite separate plants, depending on whether you’re Scottish (where it’s Campanula) or English (where it’s Hyacinthoides). You get my drift.

To have an internationally acknowledged naming system, whereby each plant is assigned a specific name, will therefore cut out any confusion. In a nutshell, the system relies on two names, the genus and the species. For example, let’s use the plant with the common name English lavender as an example. The Latin name is Lavandula (the genus) angustifolia (the species). The name can be refined even further by the addition of a variety, for example, ‘Hidcote’. So we have the complete name of Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’. (Note the genus and the species are usually written in italics, whilst the variety name is often enclosed in inverted commas and is non-italicised.) Instead of a variety, there may be an additional descriptive word, such as ‘Alba’ which comes from the Latin for white.

This brings me nicely to the way in which many of the Latin words describe the plant in some way. For example, as well as alba indicating white, other Latin descriptors give us a clue to the colour of some part of the plant. For example: aureum is the Latin for gold, so Origanum vulgare 'Aureum' is Golden [leaved] Oregano; nigra means black, so Phyllostachys nigra is Black [stemmed] Bamboo.

The Latin can also indicate where a plant is from. For example: japonica indicates that the plant is from Japan; sinensis means the plant comes from China.

The Latin name can also tell you where you are likely to find the plant in its natural habitat: for example, montana = mountains. You can often deduce something about the form or characteristic of the plant, too: grandiflora = large flowered; odorata = fragrant; angustifolia = narrow-leaved.

I’m certainly not suggesting that you should sit down with an encyclopaedia of plants and start learning all the Latin names by rote. Gradually, though, as you look for a new plant for the border, say, find out what the Latin name is so when you go to buy it from a nursery or garden centre, you know exactly what it is that you want. Or if you visit a garden, see if any of the plants have labels attached to them and make a note of the Latin name. You’d be surprised how quickly you will build up your knowledge.

One little book that I have found really useful over the years is Plant Names Simplified by Johnson and Smith. For a more recent publication, Latin for Gardeners from The Royal Horticultural Society is a good bet.

And just to make the point about Latin being a lingua franca, here’s a little story about a friend of mine who visited Japan a few years ago. She spent some time looking around a garden and kept bumping into the same lady on a number of occasions. They smiled at one another, pointing to various specimens, acknowledging their mutual love of plants. My friend doesn’t speak Japanese, and the Japanese lady didn’t speak English. They did, however, speak Plant – both knew the Latin name of each of the plants they both admired. So they conversed in Latin names, nodding and smiling at one another. They exchanged addresses and since then regularly send one another postcards or photos of the gardens they visit, always listing, in Latin, the plants that they most enjoyed.

So, for now, enjoy your hortus!

(1) Although Linnaeus has been credited with creating the system of naming, he certainly wasn’t the first to think along the lines of a binomial system. A certain Gaspard Bauhin uses a very similar scheme in his 1622 book Pinax Theatri Botanici.

I shall leave this post with a reminder about the Free Draw!

Free Draw!

To mark my golden blog anniversary (on 29th July), I thought I would give away a pair of Burgon and Ball Flower and Fruit Snips. (Ok, they’re not exactly golden, but they’re worth their weight in gold in the garden!) All you have to do is join my mailing list by the 31st August 2020 – just fill in the panel at the bottom of the page – and a name will be picked at random on 1st September. If you have already joined my mailing list, your name will be automatically entered into the draw – you do not need to sign up again.

Please note: this give-away is not sponsored.