Back in the day, I worked at a perennial nursery. I thought they were pretty lucky to get a new employee as knowledgeable about plants as I was. Au contraire. Turns out, I didn’t even speak the right language.
Some say Latin is a dead language. Not if you’re a plant geek. Real horticulturists use Latin-based binomial nomenclature when they discuss plants. Under this system, plants have a first name and a last name, like us. Unlike us, the first name is the family name, called the genus. Oak trees belong to the genus Quercus. The second name, the species, describes an individual. Quercus rubrum is a red oak. Quercus alba is a white oak.
A plant that’s been bred or otherwise cultivated to produce special characteristics has an even more specific name. So Quercus rubra “Splendens” is a red oak cultivar noted for its particularly bright red fall color.
Plant geeks care about all this because, for starters, they care deeply about the minute differences between plants. Sometimes we regular gardeners should care about this, too. For instance, suppose you admire a plant in your friend’s garden, and you want one exactly like it. She tells you it’s Salvia. If you go to the garden center and ask for Salvia, you might be directed to Salvia splendens, a colorful annual that will die after one growing season. Or you might see Salvia officinalis, the kind of sage used in cooking. If you find your way to Salvia nemorosa, an ornamental perennial, you’ll have to choose among “May Night,” “East Friesland,” “Cardonna” and many others, all of which have different heights, flower colors and bloom times.
The moral: If you want to get the exact plant you admire, think like a plant geek, and ask your friend for the plant’s Latin name.
Latin names often provide clues to the plant’s characteristics. A plant with glauca in its name may have blue flowers or blue-ish leaves. Lutea connotes yellow. Multiflora means many flowers. Longifolia suggests long leaves. Nana means it’s a small or dwarf plant. Augustifolia means the plant has narrow leaves.
Here are some really annoying things about Latin plant names: They’re hard to learn. Some of them are nearly impossible to pronounce. Schizachyrium scoparium is the Latin name for Little Bluestem, a prairie grass. Put five plant geeks in a room, and at least three will disagree on the pronunciation. I rest my case.
Just when you master a plant name, taxonomists (the masochists in charge of naming plants) change it. Take asters, for example. The Latin name for New England Asters used to be Aster novae-angliae. You can almost translate that, even if you can’t pronounce it. But now, taxonomists have re-named New England Asters Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. I would not even attempt saying that in public.
Oh, the hours I spent trying to learn the Latin names for plants! It gave me a sense of mastery. Now all those plant names are wafting off my brain like fluff from a dandelion. And that, dear readers, is blitz.
Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines.