I Dream in Latin

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to carolyn@carolynsshadegardens.com.  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Arum italicum 'Tiny Tot'Arum italicum ‘Tiny Tot’ AKA Lords-and-Ladies, Cuckoo’s Pint, Willy Lily, or Aaron’s Pen

You may have heard that Latin is a dead language.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumor of its death is greatly exaggerated.  Latin is the language that professional horticulturists use to talk about plants, study plants, acquire plants, and dream about plants.  When I talk about a plant using the common name, I am translating from the Latin text in my brain.  Why is this?  Is this some kind of nasty horticultural snobbery?  Are we trying to exclude all the “common folk” and preserve our elite status?

The short answer is a resounding NO.  But here is the explanation.

First of all, thanks to Linnaeus, Latin-based botanical plant names are used worldwide.  The botanical name for Arum italicum is Arum italicum in the US, China, Belgium, Nigeria, Chile, and in Micronesia if they grow it there.  If I were to visit a country where I didn’t speak the language, I could still talk about plants with the local horticulturists and visit labeled arboretums because we all use the same botanical names.  Now that’s cool.

[I just experienced this first hand when I watched a video on snowdrops narrated completely in Dutch, which I don’t understand.  But when the narrator said each snowdrop’s botanical name, I understood him perfectly.]

Spanish bluebells at Carolyn's Shade GardensScilla campanulata ‘Excelsior’ AKA Spanish bluebells

But why do we have to use botanical names at home in the US where, according to us at least, we all speak English. Because when I want a Geranium, I want a hardy geranium not a Pelargonium, the annual.  When a customer asks for bluebells, does he want Mertensia virginica, often called Virginia bluebells, or Scilla campanulata, Spanish bluebells, or Campanula rotundifolia, Scottish bluebells, or Wahlenbergia gloriosa, Australian royal bluebells, or Eustoma russellianim, Texas bluebells, or Hyacinthoides non-scripta, English bluebells, or maybe Phacelia campanularia, desert bluebells.  All these “bluebells” are not even closely related—they all represent a different genus—and yet they are all called bluebells, presumably because they have a blue bell-shaped flower.  You can see how confusing this can get, and it happens all the time at my nursery.

Then there are the plants that have different common names in different parts of the country or the world.  In the mid-Atlantic where I was born, we call Narcissus daffodils.  But in the Midwest, where my husband grew up, they call them jonquils.  I honestly had no idea what plant my mother-in-law was talking about when she mentioned her beautiful jonquils.

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ AKA barrenwort, bishop’s hat, fairy wings, horny goat weed, rowdy lamb herb

Or plants that have more than one common name.  Epimediums, an imminently pronounceable and spellable botanical name, bear the common names barrenwort, bishop’s hat, fairy wings, horny goat weed, and rowdy lamb herb.  Barrenwort because people thought they helped women conceive; bishop’s hats for the shape of the flowers; fairy wings for the leaf structure; and your guess is as good as mine for the last two.  If a customer came to my nursery and asked for horny goat weed, I would have no idea what she wanted (or maybe I wouldn’t want to know).

Or plants that share a common name.  In the western US, Indian paintbrush is the wildflower Castilleja linariaefolia.  But in New England, it is the wildflower Hieracium aurantiacum, also know as orange hawkweed.

summer snowflake at Carolyn's Shade GardensLecojum aestivum AKA summer snowflake

But the most important reason I think about plants in Latin is because common names are always getting me in trouble.  For example,

Gardener:  “I am really disappointed in the summer snowflake I bought last year, it blooms in spring.”  Me: “My catalogue says it blooms in spring.”  Gardener: “Then why do you call it summer snowflake?”

Gardener: “I am not buying that hellebore even though you say it’s your favorite.”  Me: “Why [I’m a glutton for punishment]?”  Gardener: “It smells bad.”  Me: “But it doesn’t smell.”  Gardener: “Then why do you call it stinking hellebore?”  I finally adopted an alternate common name, bearsfoot hellebore, to avoid future conversations like that.

And my favorite:  Gardener: “I didn’t like the iris I bought last year, when it bloomed the flowers were purple.”  Me: “You are right the flowers are purple.”  Gardener: “Then why do you call it blue flag?”  I could write a whole different article on the color I call “horticultural blue”, which results from plant breeders’ apparent need to describe purple flowers as blue.

Iris versicolor AKA blue flag

So Latin makes my life easier.  When I dream I can tell the plants apart!


Notes: Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information. If you want to return to my blog’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.), just click here.

The conversations with gardeners above are fictional and merely meant to represent the problems caused by the use of common names.  For more information on the interesting things you can figure out from the botanical names of plants, visit Hayefield’s 12/2/10 and 12/17/10 posts.

In my post I Need Your Help, I asked readers to send cards to the daughter of Kartik who was the subject of my post New Year’s Resolution to Edit the Garden.  I would still appreciate your help with this appeal.  Thanks.

42 Responses to “I Dream in Latin”

  1. Dear Carolyn, A wonderfully informative post! Latin names have been a great help to me moving from England to US. It would have taken me a long time to find wallflowers, gilly flowers, and sweet williams without knowing the Latin names. P x

  2. Carolyn, I tend to use botanical Latin and common names about equally, but I agree that the botanical names make communication among gardeners from different regions and countries much easier. I do find it difficult, though, when the taxonomists change the botanical names of the plants. Do you have a good strategy for keeping up with these changes?

    Does Epimedium have some kind of psychedelic properties that make goats horny and lambs rowdy? 🙂

    • Jean, Like Frances at Faire Garden I tend to ignore the taxonomists who change botanical plant names constantly, invariably to something completely unpronounceable and unspellable. I deigned to list Cimicifuga with (Actaea) after it, but that’s the limit. You are right to point out the Achilles heel of botanical names.

      On the other hand I thought someone might ask about the origins of epimedium’s unusual common names, but I didn’t think it would be you–I’m shocked (ha, ha). For everyone with prurient interests, I quote: “Centuries ago, Chinese goat farmers noticed that both their younger and older goats experienced sexual rejuvenation after eating the Epimedium plant.” Judging by the ads, male humans hope it will have the same effect on them. Carolyn

  3. Best reasons ever! Great post … great info … great photos (but still pondering my laborious 4 yrs of high school Latin … 🙂

    • Thanks Joey, I was forced to take Latin for 7 years. Sadly, although I often understand the meaning of the words, which as Hayfield points, out helps with understanding the plants, I cannot read it. It was a great foundation for English grammar and vocabulary, and for learning French–not worth 7 years though, what were my parents thinking! Carolyn

  4. Hi Carolyn. Informative post with great photos. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I enjoyed your post greatly! Having studied plants focusing on the botanical names I, too, think primarily in them. It was a great help when we lived in Slovakia!

  6. Another great post Carolyn. We do owe Linnaeus a large debt . . . if only for giving us a common (latin) name in a world of many languages. Oh, yes I agree about the horticulture hues! Being a flower arranger and ordering flowers on the phone sometimes . . . we humans may not all be color blind but sure can see the same color in many different ways. Blue is often considered purple!

    • Carol, You are so nice to think that people really see the blue as purple. Being more of a cynic, I think that they call the flower blue because blue is a more desirable color in the marketplace, which I can attest to at my nursery. Purple is actually my favorite color in the garden, the deeper the better, especially when paired with dark orange. Carolyn

      • Sheena McGrath Says:

        I happened across this post while searching Google. Love the bit about Horticultural Blue. I was researching a piece I’m writing called Impure Blue, about why bluish-purple is a fab colour. Do you mind if I quote you?

      • Sheena, Feel free to quote me and please link to my blog. Carolyn

  7. Witty post on botanical names! I confess that I used to feel pleased I’d learned so many of them until I discovered that it makes other gardeners uncomfortable when I use them. Now I tend to say the common name out loud and the scientific name in my head. Except on blog posts, where it is easy to include both for the comfort of all.

    My favorite common name confused incident was when I was working the extension office’s Master Gardener phone line. I live in the deep south, so you’ll just have to imagine the old woman’s accent when she asked me how to get rid of her “cow itch vine.” She proceeded to describe the arsenal of chemicals she’d dumped on it and that she had her yard man use a stump grinder on the remains but it still came back. Since it turned out to be Campsis radicans I still have no idea how to answer that question. Lovely native plant, but the most persistent one I can think of other than nonnative kudzu!

    • I don’t use botanical names at my nursery when talking with customers unless they use them (hence I am translating as I speak). I have also found that it makes people uncomfortable; in fact, that’s why I wrote the post. I wanted to explain why sometimes you have to use them, for example, in alphabetizing my catalogue. It would be impossible to do this with common names. However, in signage and writing, I always place the common name first. Sorry to hear about that arsenal of poisons. I never know how to respond to someone who tells me a story like that because inside I am appalled. Carolyn

  8. Do do do write about horitcultural blue. Mostly we bloggers are whining about the camera doesn’t see blue. A lot of South Africa’s exports are blue flowers. Plumbago, Kingfisher daisy / Felicia, Agapanthus altho that leans to purple! Then the fierce blue tongues on Strelitzia. Blue roses, are not blue at all, more a rather nasty in your face purple.

    • Diana, Blue roses, blue hellebores, blue hostas—all called that to sell, sell, sell. It gets embarrassing at the nursery because I cannot look a customer in the face and describe ‘Blue Lady’ hellebore as blue in color no matter how beautiful I think the real color is (and it is beautiful). I will try to write about the phenomena more fully in a future post. Carolyn

  9. thanks Carolyn, the BBC radio gardening programmes often point this out too as sometimes questions are asked about a plant using the common name in THAT persons area, which may not be known to listeners in other areas, a friend gave me a plant she called ‘fox and cubs’ I had never known it before and it took me a while to find out what it was, it was ‘Hieracium aurantiacum, also know as orange hawkweed.’ I would like to know and remember the latin botanical plant names better, Frances

    • Frances, When I dove headfirst into my then new career, I took many courses at Longwood Gardens, and they were all taught using the botanical names. It has really helped that my first exposure to most plants imprinted the botanical and not the common name on my brain. In fact, I often find myself talking with a customer and at a loss for the common name of a plant I don’t work with on a regular basis. I think the only way to remember them is to use them like any foreign language. I don’t care whether other people know botanical names or not: it just makes it easier if they do.. Carolyn

  10. Some bloggers tried to explain it before, but never quite as well as you have.

  11. My thoughts exactly.

  12. What a well-written and educative post! Excellent!

  13. Carolyn, how do I thank you for the kind mention of my blog. Big hug.

  14. Good point Carolyn on using botanical Latin names. I must admit that I am not all that familiar with Latin names, but I understand the importance of using them when one is talking about a specific plant. My husband has a undergraduate degree in horticulture, so he clued me in years ago about the importance of using the botanical Latin-based plant names so as not to confuse plants.

  15. All too true. Many a confused conversation has occurred as a result of a common plant name. I studied Latin in high school and hated it, but honestly, it has served me well in a number of aspects in my life, but most especially in the garden!

  16. Peter Loewer gives this same explanation for use of Latin names in his book “Native Perennials for the Southeast”. It was helpful to me and encouraged me to try to learn the Latin names of the plants I love. But I must admit that I don’t have a good memory for them even though I had two years of Latin in school (and actually liked it).

    • Hopefully not exactly the same explanation! I wouldn’t remember them if I didn’t use them all the time. And I really think most people have no need to learn them, but wanted to explain that there are important reasons why professionals use them. Carolyn

  17. Unfortunately, I would always be the gardener in your role play examples. I am not an educated gardener. I look the pretty catalogs in the winter and try to discuss some intelligently with the local shops what I think I want. Alas, ignorance is not always so bliss.

    • Cheri, I am beginning to think I made people feel guilty and inadequate. Let me re-emphasize what I guess I should have said in the post: there is no need for non-professional gardeners to learn botanical names; I just want everyone to understand why they are important, Carolyn

  18. Hi Carolyn, Another very informative post, beautifully illustrated and a pleasure to read. I love the way Latin names roll off the tongue and would use them more if I could remember them. Your ‘gardener’ conversations made me smile – some people, me included at times, are more literal than literate!

  19. Great post! being here in japan and trying get some plants would have been much harder without latin names

  20. I’m always so glad when a garden blogger uses botanical names. I follow blogs in Dutch, English, German and French – four languages I speak – or at least understand.
    But although I know the official Dutch names of lots of the more common natives and garden plants in Belgium, I don’t know their names in other languages.

    And sometimes you are so easily mislead: In Dutch, Sonchus sp. are called ‘melkdistel’, which could be literally translated as ‘milkthistle’. But the English ‘milkthistle’ is Silybum marianum (‘Maria-distel’ – Maria’s thistle).
    (Sonchus sp. are sowthistles in English).

    I even have garden books, translated from English in Dutch, were this kind of mistakes are made.

    No, common names may be used – of course – but please with their botanical ‘translations’.

    • Anne, I really appreciate your thoughtful comment confirming what I said in my article. I really find it so wonderful that we gardeners have been given our own language to use all over the world especially since, unlike you, I only read and speak English. Carolyn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: