it’s time to learn some botanical latin (and why), with ross bayton

it’s time to learn some botanical latin (and why), with ross bayton

“The Gardener’s Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names,” I’m further sharpening my skills, because botanical Latin opens up a world for gardeners willing to try learning some of it.

What can a gardener learn from studying botanical Latin? Ross Bayton, a former editor of the BBC’s “Gardeners World Magazine” created the “The Gardener’s Botanical,” and when we spoke recently, he answered that question and more. (Photo of Ross, below, from the Heronswood garden website. Ross recently became assistant director at Heronswood, the public garden near Kingston, Washington.)

Read along as you listen to the May 11, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Margaret Roach: Yeah, so what an undertaking, this encyclopedia. More than 2,000 plants, 5,000 entries, or terms, and hundreds of beautiful botanical illustrations.

Ross Bayton: It was quite a work. When the publisher came to me and said, “Well, we have room for about 5,000 words. Which ones are you going to choose?” Well, it was quite an option, as there are millions of plant names out there, so I had to winnow it down to the cream of the crop.

Margaret: Yeah, well I’ve been enjoying it, as I said in the introduction, dipping back in and really smiling to have the provenances of… the definition, so to speak, of many of my favorite plants revealed. But before we get to that, I just wanted to know a little bit about why—this is not new territory for you, you’ve written other things about plant genealogy so to speak, why is this important to you? Where did you get into this in your life?

Ross: Well, I started gardening as a kid. I had a pot of English ivy that I grew in my room. My parents were in the military and we traveled around a lot, so I didn’t have a garden, but I grew a lot of houseplants. And I started by dipping into a book that my mom had got from “Reader’s Digest.” That was an encyclopedia of houseplants.

Margaret: Yes.

Ross: And it had the Latin names there and some beautiful illustrations. And the words just seemed to stick in my mind in a way that other things don’t. I tend to forget people’s names. I’m really good at remembering plant Latin names, and once I started to see similarities between one name and another, I started to be curious about what those connections were. So, my Mom is a big fan of sweet peas and they are Lathyrus odoratus. And I realized that odoratus meant fragrant, and I saw that word in other plant names in my own garden.

Margaret: Right.

Ross: So, That was the spring that kicked it all off.

Margaret: That got the dots connecting, yeah?

Ross: Absolutely.

Margaret: So, for gardeners listening, so why Latin anyway, and is it truly even Latin or is there some Greek in here? Tell us a little bit about why botanical Latin, why it evolved, why it was “invented,” a little history.

Ross: What we call botanical Latin would not be understood by people living in ancient Rome who spoke Latin of that day. Basically what happened is that in the 18th and 19th centuries, scholars at universities, they taught entirely in Latin. Understanding and learning this language was thought to provide agility of mind for the students.

But also a lot of universities were connected to the church, and many churches also gave their… The Bible was written in Latin and many of their liturgies were also given in that language. So, it was very common for scholars to understand this particular language, and therefore it seemed a natural thing when they started to name plants to use a language that they were already using in their day-to-day scholarly endeavors.

Margaret: Right. So, and then along came Linnaeus, yes? Eventually.

Ross: Yeah. Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist. Linnaeus is actually his Latin name, his Swedish name was von Linné, and like many of the scholars of his time, he taught in Latin and he had a broad interest in science. He was trained as a medical doctor, but he received plants and animals that were brought to him by sailors, by travelers, and he was really fascinated to try and classify them. And so he would give them names in Latin.

But the really important thing that he did was he gave them a two-part name. Now, before Linnaeus, all the names that were given to plants and animals were actually long descriptions of those plants or animals in Latin. That’s pretty cumbersome. When you’re dealing with a plant, you don’t want a name that has eight or 10 words in it. What Linnaeus did was he shortened these down to two words and we now call those two-word names, the Linnaean binomials, and they’re the names that you find in the book.

Margaret: Right. You mentioned sailors a minute ago, and so this from the early 18th century onward was the age of plant exploration. It wasn’t just Europe where he was, it was people were bringing things in from other places, and there were unknown things. So, different people would be communicating with people in other countries. And I think in the book, one of the essays up front says something like, “One great advantage of Latin is its universality, that it’s not the language of any one nation.” And was that also part of the motivation?

Ross: Absolutely. Nobody really speaks Latin today and so it’s the language that can be used by people in any country. But Linnaeus had an advantage in that he started his work in Sweden, and Sweden doesn’t really have an awful big flora. It doesn’t have very many different species of plants. If Linnaeus had been born in central Africa, or in South America, where plants were much more common, much more diverse, it’s entirely possible that he just would have been so confused by this great diversity that he would have never come up with the system that he did. Because he only had to work on a small group of plants, he was able to develop a system and then refine it as people brought plants to him from other parts of the world.

Margaret: Right.

Ross: So, he began in Europe, but this taxonomy that he began, quickly began to spread across the world as Europeans and others were exploring further afield.

Margaret: And since it wasn’t the language of any one nation, it was a shared language for all of these people.

Ross: Absolutely. Nobody felt excluded by that. It didn’t belong to one person and so everybody could use it, and today they still do. If you read a botanical paper from China, almost the only part that you’ll be able to read, if you’re an English speaker like me, is the Latin names.

Margaret: Right. So, we mentioned the system for naming plants, and of course it was for other organisms as well. And I read an essay you wrote recently, or maybe it’s excerpted from the book, where you muse about our Latin name, Homo sapiens, and how it doesn’t sound very fancy compared to some of the plant names that are more elaborate, but until you understand what it translates. Which is “wise man,” yes? So, we gave ourselves a very good name. [Laughter.]

Ross: Yes, we were quite modest. Homo sapiens is a name that was given by Linnaeus and in fact Linnaeus’s body actually remains the type specimen for the human species, because when he named humans, he based it on himself. So, he will forever be remembered as the original human, at least where taxonomists are concerned.

Margaret: So, he’s not pressed in a herbarium slide, but he is the type specimen, yeah?

Ross: He is the type specimen in his tomb in Sweden.

Margaret: [Laughter.] So, early on when I was first learning from much more scholarly individuals, plant friends, I was paralyzed. I was afraid to say the words out loud because they looked so difficult. And I was told, “Don’t worry Margaret, it wasn’t a spoken language really. It was okay to just have at it and try to pronounce stuff and do my best,” which is always going to be better than a common name. So, does pronunciation matter?

You give guidelines, but I think you let us off the hook and say “don’t worry,” also. Is that correct?

Ross: You are absolutely correct, Margaret. I always tell people not to worry about it. There are purists who might adopt certain pronunciations for certain parts of botanical Latin, but my feeling is that I would rather people were using the names and understanding them than sticking to some rigid system of pronunciation. You say Clematis. I said Clematis. I think you’re easily understood whatever the way.

As I began doing this as a kid, I would say names in all sorts of different ways. So, one of the ones I used to mispronounce was the daylilies genus, Hemerocallis, but then when I grew up and started speaking to people about it, I realized that everybody actually called it Hemerocallis.

Margaret: Yes. [Laughter.]

Ross: It’s a subtle difference, and most people understood what I was saying, but until I started speaking with other people, I didn’t realize that there were other ways that you might say it. But in truth it doesn’t really matter. Most people will understand what you’re saying.

Margaret: O.K. So, I think one of the big incentives for learning botanical Latin is how much it can tell you about the plants it describes, to be clearer than common names of course. And you have lots of great examples of how confusing it can be to use common names. Maybe you want to give us a quick one just to illustrate that.

Ross: Well, probably the prime example is the word bluebells. Now, if I say bluebell to you, you immediately get a picture in your mind of a plant with a blue bell-shaped flower. Absolutely fair enough. The trouble is there are bluebells in Australia, there are bluebells in California, there are bluebells in Europe, and there are bluebells in Asia. Because that name is so familiar, people who traveled and explored in other countries tended to give that name to other plants that looked similar, but in fact a lot of these plants were not related at all.

We tend to think of Latin names purely as labels, but the people who assigned them, they are actually keen that these names reflect something of the relationships of the plants, what is related to what. And so it’s really important that these different plants that are not related have their own unique name, and not an English name that is really open to confusion. And of course, if you’re growing a bluebell that came from Europe and you’re growing a bluebell that came from Australia, then the chances are those two plants are going to need quite different care in your garden. They’ll need different light regimes, different temperatures, and so, just using the word bluebell could potentially lead to you giving your plant treatment that it doesn’t want.

Margaret: Yeah, so as I said, learning Latin can tell you a lot about the plant being described. The plant you’re looking at, the plant you’re working with or considering buying. It can be physical traits, it can be stories about its origin, where it’s native to maybe, or the kind of environment. Or sometimes even things like who it honors or who discovered it. So, lots of different… For instance, reading the book, I was reminded and I had totally forgotten a plant I’ve grown forever and ever, that the butterflies in my garden love, Verbena bonariensis, the tall verbena, translates as “the verbena from Bueno Aires,” yes?

Ross: Absolutely, and while the great majority of plant Latin names are descriptive, so they describe maybe what the plant looks like or where it came from or the kind of habitat that it grows in, there are lots of other different types of plant names. Commemorative plant names that honor the person who discovered it, or perhaps the person who funded the mission that discovered it. There are plants named after politicians, plants named after botanists, plants named after botanist’s wives.

So, while the information contained in plant Latin names isn’t always directly helpful to the grower, there are a lot of fascinating stories there that explain how the world was explored and how plants were discovered.

Margaret: Right. Like species names like horizontalis or giganteum. Those are the easy ones.

Ross: Or things like… So, habitat ones are very common. So, palustris, which means of the marsh. Plants that have palustris in their name are likely to need a damp soil. Or montana or alpina, which mean of the mountains—those plants are going to likely need good drainage and full sun. So, some of those names really clue you in to the habitat the plant came from, and if you can replicate that in your yard, then your plant is much more likely to be successful.

Margaret: Right. So, maybe we could have some fun with some… I think you used an example in one spot about Hydrangea, and maybe you say Hydrangea [laughter], I don’t know which way you say it, but whatever, makes no difference. But it’s a genus with what, around 70 species or something? And so, just giving us an example about that one, and maybe one species within it? Yeah.

“The Gardener’s Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names,” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at he very bottom of the page:

How comfortable do you feel with Latin names? Are you open to more exploration of them?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” or something to that effect, and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

(Illustrations from “The Gardener’s Botanical” used with permission.)

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