Sunday, December 11, 2011


            Decoding botanical names makes learning them more fun (no, really), and increases the likelihood they stick in your memory.

Leonhard Fuchs
            A genus is always a Latinized noun, often of a word in another language that doesn’t mean anything to English-speakers. Take Viburnum: it’s Latin for “wayfaring tree.” Go figure. Sometimes, though, we can make associations. Buddleja, for example, is Linnaeus’ commemoration of the Rev. Adam Buddle (1662-1715), a British clergyman and naturalist. Fuchsia bears the name of the 16th-century German physician and botanist Leonhard Fuchs (technically, it ought to be pronounced FOOKS-ee-uh, but I’m sticking with FYOO-shah). Honeysuckle derives its generic name, Lonicera, from one Adam Lonicer. And so on. Mythological personages make appearances, like Daphne and Andromeda. Morphology occasionally contributes too, such as bell-flower genus Campanula, from the Italian campanile or “bells.”  

        Campanula 'Viking,'
a hybrid bell-flower
            In short, generic names are what they are. Philodendron translates to "love of (philo) wood (dendron)," and we must leave it at that.

         Where nomenclature gets interesting is in the specific epithets. A genus can stand alone—say Juniper (an intermediate English derivation from yoani, meaning “reed,” and another word etymologists haven’t yet teased out) and most gardeners will have some idea what you’re talking about. Species names, on the other hand, are adjectives that have no meaning without objects to modify.

            Too much grammar? Allow me to clarify.

            A man once hired Tim and me to draw a landscape plan for his under-construction house. As we walked the property, he mentioned he loved the japonicas surrounding his home in Georgia. Did he mean camellias? we asked. No, he insisted, japonicas. We pressed for more information, explaining that “japonica” just means “Japanese”: saying he loved the Japanese planted around his house omitted crucial horticultural information. Japanese what? Maples? Camellias? Ligustrum? Hollies? We went round and round on this topic for about 20 minutes, then just gave up. Walter, unmoved by either Linnaean logic or reason, wanted japonicas. 

Walter notwithstanding, when coupled with a genus, specific epithets give helpful information about the plant being named. They may hint at the plant’s anatomical structures or tactile qualities; its habit, color, or origin; some person associated with it; its native habitat; smells emanating from it; resemblances to other plants; or miscellaneous attributions. Here are a few examples from each category.
The star-like flower of
Magnolia stellata
  •     Anatomical structures: flora/um/us and florida/um/us mean flowers; folia/um/us and phylla/um/us refer to leaves; spora/um to asexual reproduction, sperma/um to seeds.  Flowers and leaves each have a raft of identifiers, too. Flowers can be bell-shaped (campanulata/um/us), freely blooming (floribunda/um/us), starry (stellata/um/us), large (grandifolia/um/us), small (parviflora/um/us), and so on. Leaves may also be small (microphylla/um/us and parvifolia/um/us), large (macrophylla/um/us and grandifolia/um/us), narrow (angustifolia/um/us), broad (platyphylla/um/us), etc.
  • Tactile qualities: tomentosa/um/us means fuzzy, hirsuta/um/us is hairy; glabra/um/us is smooth; molle/is is soft; coriacea/um/us, leathery.
  • Habit: arborea/um/us means tree-like; nana/um/us is dwarf; pendula/um/us means weeping; humile/is, low-growing; repens and reptans mean creeping.
  • Colors: rolling down the Roy G. Biv spectrum, rubra/um/us means red, coccinea/um/us is scarlet and rosea/um/us, pink; aurantica/um/us, orange; lutea/um/us means yellow and aurea, gold; viride/is, green; caerulea/um/us, blue; purpurea/um/us and violacea/um/us, purple; alba/um/us means white; glauca/um/us, white-ish; argentea/um/us, silver; and nigra/um/us is black. 
  • Origins: japonica/um/us—as you already know—refers to Japan, as does nipponica/um/us; chinense/is and sinense/is to China; indica/um/us to India; sibirica/um/us to Siberia; canadense/is to Canada. And guess where they’re talking about when missourica/um/us and virginica/um/us get mentioned? A little trickier, nova-belgii and nova-angliae mean New York and New England, respectively. North is boreale/is and south is australe/is.
Carol Petr Thunberg...
  • Commemorative:  thunbergii, thunbergia, and thunbergiana honor Carol Petr Thunberg,  the 18th-century naturalist whose name became the specific epithet of some 254 plants and animals; Miss Ellen Willmott (1858-1934), doyenne of the British Royal Horticultural Society and important English gardener, gave us willmottiana/um/us; and Dr. Augustine Henry of henryana, henryii fame was an English medical doctor who, when posted to China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, indulged his hobby of amateur botany by cataloging Sino-Himalyan flora.
  • Native habitat: alpina/um/us refers to the Alps while any other ol' mountains are montana/um/us; littorale/is and maritima/um/us to the seashore; sylvatica/um/us to woods; and palustre/is to swamps. 
  • Smells: odora/um/us means sweet-scented; moschata/um/us, musky; citriodora/um/us, lemon-scented; foetida/um/us,  strong or unpleasant smelling.
...and his eponymous
Allium thunbergii.
  • Comparisons to other plants: jasminoides means jasmine-like; liliiflora/um/us is lily-flowered; salicifolia/um/us, willow-leaved.
  • Miscellaneous: alata/um/us is winged (a hort term for those corky ridges on the stems of plants like burning bush, Euonymus alata); edule/is, edible; speciosa/um/us means showy; praecox, early; vernalis is spring; and vulgare/is, common.
The Hiller Manual of Trees and Shrubs (see Good Reads, at right) has an appendix translating many common specific epithets that provided most of the above translations. Also well worth checking out is William T. Stearns’ classic Botanical Latin (also in Good Reads).  

Please don't lose sleep over pronunciation. No one actually speaks Latin anymore, not even Catholic priests, so have fun with it. Both Allan Armitage and Tony Avent advise just speaking authoritatively: not too many people will dare to correct you. (Just so you know, I might. An incurable, hard-wired stickler for details, I pore over the pronunciation guides at the back of every issue of Fine Gardening and Horticulture magazines, muttering the syllables aloud to myself, drawing some strange looks if I happen to be in our local coffee shop at the time. To the uninitiated, it probably sounds like incantations or maniacal gibberish.)

The spotty stem of Joe Pye weed, 
Eupatorium maculatum
Botanical Latin opens other etymological doors for word-nerds such as yours truly. You may recall that the previous post started with a lexicographical epiphany I experienced regarding the name of the hospital where I entered the world, Mary Immaculate. I reported the true meaning of “immaculate” coming to me like a flash of lightning. And I owe it all to Joe Pye weed. Why? Because Joe Pye weed’s botanical name is Eupatorium maculatum maculata/um/us” meaning “spotted” or “blotched,” which, in fact, the stems of Joe Pye weed are. “Im” is a prefix meaning “not” or “without” (used only when preceding b, m, or p: otherwise it’s “in”). Ergo, Mary Immaculate is really Mary-Without-Spots.

How can one not be thrilled when stumbling into such a discovery? It beats the hell out of roller-skating down a flight of stairs, I’m here to testify.

It’s really worth the time and trouble to learn botanical names. If for no other reason, you’ll forge some new neural pathways in your brain—the same way brushing your teeth with the hand you don’t usually use does—thus improving your ability to remember where you left your glasses and the car keys so you can get to your local garden center.

Thanks for dropping by.