LATIN IN THE GARDEN   By Wayne Handlos, Ph.D.

(This article is adapted from a presentation to the California Master Gardeners in Asilomar in September 2008.)

Many gardeners (and others too) are intimidated by the scientific names of plants. But let me show you that you probably know more than you think you do. Most gardeners/plant people are comfortable with the following plant names: Acacia, Ageratum, Anthurium, Asparagus, Aster, Bougainvillea, Canna, Dahlia, Fuchsia, Gardenia, Geranium, Hibiscus, Impatiens, Iris, Penstemon, Verbena. These are all scientific names!! How about the following names of plants? Do you know what these names refer to? Golden wattle, floss flower, pigtail plant, smilax, Michaelmas daisy, paper flower, Indian shot, bell tree, lady’s eardrops, Cape jasmine, cranesbill, rose mallow, sultana, flag, beardtongue, vervain. These English common names refer to the same plants and in the same order as the scientific names in the previous paragraph!! So common names are not always so common.

One common name might refer to several different plants. Daisy can refer to many very different plants. On the other hand there may be many common names for one type of plant. Hibiscus moscheutos is known by the following common English names: common rose mallow, swamp rose mallow, mallow rose, wild cotton, marsh mallow and sea hollyhock.

The same plant may be referred to by different common names in different languages. Mint in English has the generic name of Mentha and is called menthe in French, minze in German and munt in Dutch. The binomial for rose campion is Lychnis coronaria. In French it is known as lychnide, in German it is lichtnelke and in Dutch it is prikneus.

      Over the years it became apparent that some order needed to be brought out of this chaos. The person usually given credit for this is Carolus Linnaeus or Carl von Linne, who in 1753 published the book called Species Plantarum. This two volume work included descriptions in Latin of some 7,300 species of plants. At that time, Latin was the language of scholars and educated people in Europe. The use of Latin enabled them to communicate across language barriers with people across the whole continent. In Linnaeus’ scheme, each plant was given a two word name (now referred to as the system of “binomial nomenclature”). The first word of the name or binomial is the name of the genus while the second word is the name of the species. (The word genus is singular and the plural is genera. The word species is both singular and plural; however, the abbreviation “sp.” refers a single species while the abbreviation “spp.” is plural and refers to more than one species.) Where do these names come from? The genus may be named for a person, may be descriptive or may come from another language. The name of the species may honor a person, be simply descriptive, may describe the habitat in which the plant grows, etc.

Within Pelargonium the following species names illustrate the origin of names: caylae - named after M. Cayla, Governor General of Madagascar; album - white; fragrans - fragrant; mossambicense - from Mozambique; reniforme - kidney shaped; odoratissimum - very sweet scented.

Today, by the consensus of scientists, the use of plant names is governed by two sets of rules: The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) and the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). Failure to follow the rules means anything you propose is simply ignored by the scientific community. These rules are reviewed periodically and updated at international conventions. The ICBN is guided by several principles, namely: (1) the type method, (2) priority of publication, (3) only one name per category, (4) all names are treated as Latin, (5) the species rank is basic for all other names. The type method means that there is a dried/ preserved specimen (or illustration) somewhere (usually held by a university, museum or herbarium) to which the name is attached. Priority of publication basically means “first come-first served.” If a species (or other category) is named by two or more different people (a common enough occurrence before the electronic age), the name with the earliest date of publication is the preferred name. There are several other important rules. (1) Binomials are italicized in print or underlined in typed or handwritten material. (2) The first letter of generic names is always capitalized. (3) To be acceptable the description of a new species must be in Latin and must appear in published books or periodicals available to the general public. (4) Some names are conserved. Commonly used scientific names may be preserved over earlier variants – usually related to the correction of spelling used in the first description. Bougainvillea, published in 1799, is conserved over Buginvillaea, which was published 10 years earlier (1789) but had an unorthodox spelling.

As regards pronunciation, the following rules apply. (1) Every vowel is pronounced. It is co-to-ne-as-ter not cotton-easter. (2) Accent the next to last syllable if the vowel is long (for mo’sus) or when two consonants separate the last two vowels (cru en’tus). (3)Accent the second from last syllable if the next to last vowel is short (flo’ri dus, sil va’tic us).

One may see a plant name with other names following it - P. zonale (Linnaeus) L’Heritier for example. Linnaeus was the first person to publish the name zonale for this species but he included this species in the genus Geranium. L’Heritier is the name of the person who transferred this species to the genus Pelargonium. The names of authors are not considered part of the name of the species.

Sometimes you see an X as part of the name of a plant. The X is used to indicate that the plant is considered a hybrid, as in P. x kewense. It is believed that this plant arose from a cross between P. zonale and P. inquinans at KEW GARDENS.  Cultivars or cultivated varieties are covered by the rules of the ICNCP. These rules apply only to cultivated plants. To stabilize the use of names the use of standards are required. These include the use of herbarium specimens, photographs and descriptions of the plants. The descriptions may be in any language but should be in dated printed matter which is available to the public. Cultivar names should be registered with an international body. A cultivar name should not be used more than once in any genus. These names may be in any language and names given in another language should not be translated. The first letter of the name is always capitalized and the name is enclosed in single quotation marks in printed or written material.

There are many books available about the names of plants. The older ones can be found on for a very nominal price. The ICBN can be found in its entirety on the internet too if you would like to delve further into the subject. Many examples are provided for all the rules listed here and others which I have not considered.

                                                                                                                                January 2009


© 2010, Central Coast Geranium Society (CCGS )