As Cabin Fever (or whatever is worse than Cabin Fever) and another foot of snow falls heavier down upon us, it ushers in the time of year where otherwise ridiculous ideas for blog posts suddenly sound amazing. This is how a primer on Latin landed in front of you. I’m sorry!
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I’ve never been forced to learn botanical/horticultural Latin, that was never a part of my collegiate education nor my Master Gardener training. I know a select few plant names in full Latin, mostly because of Gardener’s World if I’m being honest. But I do not have a practical, functional understanding of the language for it to be in any way useful. Let’s change that!
Now, before you run away screaming, I’m not trying to actually learn Latin. I just want to see if we can all learn some root words that will help us better understand things about the plants. You see, on Gardener’s Question Time (GQT) James Wong (who clearly DOES know his Latin) will chime in about certain plants- using their Latin names- and be all “well this means its golden and was found in China” or “well that means it grows tall and has blue-green foliage”. That’s the sort of thing that is practical knowledge and what I’m hoping to learn.
Are you with me?
This can apply to foliage or flowers, but is very helpful for when flowers aren’t present and/or plant tags are lacking.
Red– Rubra, Rubrum, Ruba, Sanguinia (for very dark red) (ex: Acer rubrum, aka Red Maple)
Yellow– Flavia, Luteus, or Citrinus (ex: Chimonanthus praecox ‘Leteus’, aka Yellow Wintersweet)
Gold– Aureus (ex: Rubus idaeus ‘Aureus’, aka Rasperry with golden foliage)
Blue– Azureus or Careuleus (ex: Penstemon azureus, aka Gentian-Blue Penstemon)
Purple– Purpureus, very park purple is Autopurpureus (ex: Echinacea purpurea, aka: Purple Coneflower)
White– Albus (ex: Lupinus albus, aka White Lupine)
Silver– Argenteus (ex: Mimetes argenteus, aka Silver Pagoda Protea)
Black– Nigrum, Nigra, Ater (ex: Sambucus nigra, aka Black Lace Elderberry)
Columnar or Upright– Fastigate/Fastigatus or Columnaris (ex: Betula pendula fastigata, aka Upright Silver Birch)
Rounded– Globosus (ex: Gomphrena globosa, aka Common Globe Amaranth)
Pyramid– Pyramidalis (ex: Campanula pyramidalis, aka Chimney Bellflower)
Spreading or Creeping– Reptans (ex: Ajuga reptans, aka Common Bugle, a well known groundcover)
Flat– Prostrata (ex: Veronica prostrata, aka Prostrate Speedwell)
Weeping– Pendula (ex: Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’, aka Weeping European Beech)
Evergreen– Sempervirens (ex: Buxus sempervirens, aka Boxwood)
Large Leaves– Macrophylla, Macrophyllus, Macrophyllum (ex: Hydrangea macrophylla, aka: Bigleaf Hydrangea)
Variegation– Variegatus or Pictus (ex: Miscanthus sinsens ‘Variegatus’, aka Variegated Miscanthus)
Twisted– Contorta (ex: Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, aka Corkscrew Hazel or Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick)
Narrow Leaves– Angustifolia (ex: Lavendula angustifolia, aka Common Lavender)
Compact– Compacta (ex: Pinus pumilla ‘Compacta’, aka Dwarf Siberian Pine)
Spotted– Maculata (ex: Nemophila maculata, aka Five Spot)
Round Leaves– Rotundifolia (ex: Campanula rotundifolia, aka Bluebell)
Spiked– Spicata (ex: Liatris spicata, aka Blazing Star)
Spiny– Spinosa (ex: Aralia spinosa, aka Devil’s Walking Stick- noted for its thorns)
Common– Vulgaris (ex: Thymus vulgaris, aka Common Thyme)
Meadows– Pratensis (ex: Poa pratensis, aka: Kentucky Bluegrass)
Mountains– Montana (ex: Clematis montana)
Sea Side– Maritima (ex: Armeria maritima, aka Sea Thrift)
Woodland– Sylvestris (ex: Pinus sylvestris, aka Scots Pine)
Marshes– Palustris (ex: Caltha palustris, aka Marsh Marigold)
Alpine– Alpinus (ex: Aster alpinus, aka Alpine Aster)
Early– Praecox (ex: Chimonanthus praecox, aka Wintersweet, which blooms February to March)
Spring– Vernalis (ex: Hamamelis vernalis, aka Ozark Witch Haze, blooms January to April)
Summer– Aestivalis (ex: Vitis aestivalis, aka Summer Grape)
Fall– Autumnalis (ex: Sesleria autumnalis, aka Autumn Moor Grass)
Winter– Hyemalis (ex: Eranthus hyemalis, aka Winter Aconite)
This one can be super helpful in that if you know a region is similar to your own (or actually your own) its a good indicator of hardiness.
Canada– Candensis (ex: Cercis canadensis, aka Eastern Redbud)
Japan– Japonica (ex: Fatsia japonica, aka Japanese Fatsia)
China– Chinensis (ex: Rhus chinensis, aka Chinese Sumac)
North America (particularly the Western Region)– Occidentalis (ex: Thuja occidentalis, aka: American Arborvitae)
Siberia– Sibirica (ex: Iris sibirica, aka Siberian Iris)
From the South– Australis (ex: Baptisia australis, aka Blue False Indigo)
Perisan– Persicaria (Ex: Fritillaria persica, aka Persian Lily)
This is a funny header because these are plants that honor their Horticultural parents or famous naturalists in their name- so, honorable mentions. Get it? I crack myself up… This information won’t clue you in to any plant characteristics, but you do see them often enough that they warrant listing.
Thunbergii– Carl Peter Thunberg (ex: Berberis thunbergii, aka Japanese Barberry)
Wilsonii– E. H. Wilson, noted plant collector (ex: Magnolia wilsonii, aka Wilson’s Magnolia)
Sargentii– Charles S. Sargent (ex: Prunus sargentii, aka Sargent Cherry)
Jackmanii– George Jackman, English Clematis breeder (ex: Clematis jackmanii)
Lamarckii– Chevalier de Lamarck (ex: Amelanchier lamarckii, aka Serviceberry or Juneberry)
Now, I certainly don’t expect to remember all of this and I’m not going to make myself flashcards in order to memorize it. But, I have found researching this so very helpful to see how many of the Latin words are easily identified by their English cousins. The few outliers are found frequently enough to remember. And, of course, we all (mostly) have smartphones now so if you are ever in a nursery and can’t decipher what the plant’s name is trying to tell you- well, its only a Google search away!