Kate’s keeping us entertained this week with how Latin names for plants are derived. I never know what plants to put in my garden where one border is very shady and the other is very sunny. It turns out understanding what the Latin names mean could help….
What’s in a name?
Common plant names differ between countries and even regions and can therefore cause confusion, a bit like English words sometimes having different meanings in America! Latin plant names are used universally so you can be sure that whether you buy a plant in Birmingham or Bilbao you’ll get the same thing.
What does it all mean?
The binomial system of naming plants was created by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in the mid 1700’s and classifies plants based on their shared characteristics, such as leaf and flower shape, colour, fruit etc. All plants are given two names; a Genus and a species, and often three if there is a new strain developed or discovered.
Genus is like our surname or family name, (although it comes first), and has a capital letter, and the species is an individual within the Genus, like separate family members, and is written in lower case. The third name, if present, is either the variety if it is a naturally occurring variant, or cultivar (cultivated variety) if it is created by breeding. Cultivars are usually in speech marks and with capital letters. So for example, the Genus could be McConnell, with different species being helyn, big john and little john. Plant breeders might discover a naturally occurring ‘twin’ variety of helyn but with red hair, which they could name McConnell helyn rubra. They might even develop a cultivar of helyn with specific characteristics and name it, perhaps McConnell helyn ‘Wyndley’ !
Latin names often describe the plant’s place of origin or habitat, its characteristics, or the person who discovered it (Victorian plant hunters were intrepid explorers and were the Indiana Joneses of their day!). The spiky shrub Pyracantha comes from the Greek for fire, pyra and thorn, anther, and its common name is Firethorn. Hydrangeas do not like dry soil – with the first part of the name being hydra, the clue is definitely in the name! This is often a good way of finding out the right conditions for a plant; for example if it has sylvestris in its name, it probably won’t like full sun as it is a woodland plant.
sinensis, japonica, sibirica, alpina, montana, sylvestris, marinus = China, Japan, Siberia, alpine, mountain, woodland, sea
alba, aurea, nigra, rubra, virens = white, gold, black, red, green
pendula, reptans, magnus, maculata = weeping, creeping, large, spotted
The picture is of Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostrate Group’ Rosmarinus is Latin for ‘Dew of the Sea’, officinalis denotes a plant that has medicinal uses, and Prostrate means low growing.
Why not see what you can find out about plant names in your garden?