If you’re like me, you’ve bought at least one plant and five bottles of nail polish just because the name was cool. Moon Over Morocco anyone? Part of the fun of being gardener is when you can issue roll call of your garden denizens for guests and include specimens like Belinda’s Dream, Mojito Mint, and American Beautyberry. It’s a hell of a lot sexier (and easier) then saying Mentha villosa var. alopecuroides or Callicarpa americana. But even though those Latin names printed on the plant label look like alphabet soup, they are critical for a number of reasons.
First, using Latin names instead of the common name ensures that we are talking about the same plant. For example, at least everyone can identify a plant they would call “morning glory.” The problem is that over 1,000 different species of plants have the common name morning glory. Those plants all belong to multiple genus and families, which means they are genetically different. These genetic differences manifest as differences in growth habit, regional adaptations, colors, toxicity, and other critical factors. So the morning glory I see here in Texas is not the same morning glory my cousin sees when visiting China. No matter how much they want to believe it’s true. So using a Latin name ensures that I am talking about Ipomoea imperati (Beach Morning Glory) and not Ipomoea batatas(Sweet Potato). One makes delicious tubers to fill my belly, the other just looks pretty.
So why latin? Because Latin is a dead language. Okay, so what does that mean? It means that besides scientists, catholic priests, and vampires, no one is speaking it on a daily basis. Thus, the language is not continuously evolving like English, with new words and slang emerging from growing industries and aloof teens making their mark (Rufus!). As a result, the meaning of the words don’t change. So if we name something with a scientific name, the name and its meaning won’t change. The other benefit is that it’s a universal approach to naming plants, so whether you’re in France, Spain, or the U.S., you can rest assured you are talking about the same plant.
A quick lesson on taxonomy.
Taxonomy is the practice of naming things and adheres to a very strict set of standards. If you can dust off the cobwebs and recall back to high school biology, all organisms are grouped into categories, that are further subdivided until you finally get to the individual species. All of these are named using latin terms. Typically, gardeners are concerned with the family, genus, and specific epithet of a plant, though plant labels usually only provide the genus and epithet. These are always written in latin and in italics, with the genus capitalized. A simple way to think about them is a genus can be considered as a surname (Connor) and the epithet as the first name (Shennandoah). So if I were a plant, my name would be written as Connor shennandoah. Using that example, several plants will belong to the Connor genus, but there is only one that is Connor shennandoah. Because multiple examples are great, below is a diagram of the scientific name for the common Sweet Potato.
Second, Latin names are also important as they can convey key information about a plant, information that isn’t always conveyed with that easy to pronounce common name. This is especially critical when trying to identify if you have an ornamental or edible variety, cultivation practices, and other key factors. For example, if you see the word “officinalis” you know you have a medicinal variety, but if you see the term “emeticus” you know that baby is going to make you hurl. So don’t eat it! On a positive note, you don’t have to travel to a monastery and study papyrus to develop a working knowledge of latin for gardening purposes. Some very nice people have already gone and done the work for us! Below are a few books that I use as guides to help me understand the latin terms, as well as to help with developing a basic understanding of taxonomy and how and why plants are organized in their respective families.
Gardener’s Latin by Bill Neal
Botany in a Dayby Thomas Elpel (one of my all time favorite reference books!)
Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison
Botanical Latin by William Stearn
If you really want to get nerdy you can also check out the International Code of Botanic Nomenclature. This is the Bible for taxonomists and establishes the guidelines for naming and classifying new plants. For the most part it doesn’t change, though sometimes the taxonomists rearrange and rename things when they think we aren’t looking. Like changing Legumaceae to Fabaceae. I saw that! Mandala Effect in action or bored taxonomists? Either way, don’t take it for granted that the higher level organization of a plant will stay the same, however the genus and epithet should stay the same, barring any new genetic discoveries.