I Dream in Latin
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 horticulturalists 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 horticulturalists 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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.