Common names for plants are often charming and easy to pronounce, but they’re unlikely to tell us anything about where a plant is from or what its form, colour and size are likely to be. For that you need botanical Latin. Aware that learning this horticultural language can be daunting, a new book is released this month, with the aim of removing the mystique.
Garden historian Lorraine Harrison is the woman behind RHS Latin for Gardeners (£12.99, Mitchell Beazley) and she is a firm believer that learning this language can help us as gardeners. “This book is very much about encouraging the blossoming of better gardeners, rather than creating Latin scholars,” she explains. “I think most gardeners find botanical Latin useful as a tool rather than as an esoteric interest. It helps them with such practicalities as choosing the best plant to grow in their particular conditions, whether a plant is happier in sun or shade, is tender or hardy, or even if it has a low and spreading habit or is tall and creeping.”
Knowing that noctiflorus refers to flowers that only open at night, or that plants with aromaticus, fragrans and odoratissimus in their names will smell good has got to be a bonus for anyone who is planning a garden, and Harrison agrees that learning this language is almost like becoming a plant detective.
“That analogy is quite apt as botanical names can be looked upon as clues,” she says. “Some terms are very specific, such as those that tell us about the place from which a plant originates. These may be as detailed as bonariensis, meaning from the Argentinian city of Buenos Aires, or refer to a country, as in japonicus meaning a plant connected with Japan. Continents also crop up often in plant names, such as africanus, or europaeus.”
Absorbing this knowledge is a benefit to gardeners, but back in the 16th century, when plant hunters began bringing previously unknown plants back to Europe from around the globe, having a common language was something that had not yet been achieved. Physicians and herbalists needed to be able to accurately identify and name plants as they were the main source of medicine, but although Latin was used, it tended to take the form of long and unwieldy descriptions. It was not until the 18th-century that botanist Carl Linnaeus devised a simplified system of naming plants that this universal language began to evolve.
“Linnaeus’s work was vital to the advancement of botany, and also to the development of medicine and many other sciences,” says Harrison. “Using Latin, the international language of scholars, he introduced a binomial, or two-word, system that forms the basis of the plant names that gardeners use today.”
She explains that the first part of the name is the genus and the second the specific species, for example Acer forrestii. This was a vast improvement on the long and rambling descriptions, and also on common names, which she says “were even more misleading as plants often had multiple and extremely localised names, a tradition that continues today”.
Following Linnaeus’s presentation of his system, international botanical congresses of the 19th and 20th centuries worked together to agree a set of rules for naming plants and in 1952 the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature was published. It sets out the principles by which plants’ names are formed and established and all major botanical journals and institutions abide by its rules and recommendations. The contents have, however, been revised several times, with plants being reclassified as more is learned about them, particularly in this era of DNA analysis.
“The accurate identification of plants is indeed a work in progress and is set to continue well into the future,” says Harrison. “This will inevitably lead to plants being reclassified and renamed, something that gardeners find very annoying.”
As well as providing a history of botanical Latin and an overview for beginners (helping us to tell a genus from a species), RHS Latin for Gardeners features an extensive A-Z of Latin terms, complete with pronunciation guide. There are profiles of particularly interesting plants and also the people who “discovered” so many of the plants which appear in our gardens today. Harrison says that one of the most interesting plant hunters she encountered during her research was a Scot, David Douglas, who as a young man worked at Glasgow Botanic Garden, then later made many plant-collecting expeditions to North America.
“During his career Douglas collected hundreds of trees, shrubs and ornamental plants, including Pseudotsuga douglasii, the Douglas fir,” she says. Sadly he met a tragic end, having fallen into an animal pit trap while on an expedition in Hawaii, only to be gored to death by a bullock that was already in the pit.
This book is filled with interesting tales, meaning that getting to grips with botanical Latin never feels like a dry, scholarly affair. Achillea is one plant that is given a thorough explanation – it was named after Achilles, the warrior of Greek mythology. Achilles was apparently renowned for staunching the flow of blood from the wounds of his soldiers with a concoction prepared from yarrow. Harrison explains that this long-held belief that the plant had the power to heal wounds resulted in a whole range of common names alluding to its medicinal properties, including staunchgrass and woundwort.
Learning about the hidden histories and language of plants is enjoyable, and Harrison thinks that this knowledge can change the way we look at plants.
“It’s rather like looking at a painting,” she says. “You can obviously enjoy a painting even if you know nothing of its history, but often if you have a little background knowledge about the artist or the historical context in which it was created then your enjoyment and understanding is much increased. It is often the same with certain plants.”
For anyone who has previously switched off at the first whiff of Latin, this book offers a fresh approach.
RHS Latin for Gardeners by the Royal Horticultural Society and Lorraine Harrison, is published by Mitchell Beazley, £12.99, http://www.octopusbooks.co.uk/