Learn a Little Latin

It’s a New Year and soon it will be a new growing season!  In a few months the nurseries will be stuffed with exciting plants with tags that are often hard to understand. So now is a good time to Learn a little Plant Latin so when the time comes to shop in the spring you can have a better understanding of what you are buying. Latin is an old or what’s known as a dead language in that no new words are being added but it is universal in that all countries use it to describe plants.

The naming of plants is called “nomenclature” it was developed by a Swedish naturalist named Carl Linnaeus in the mid-1700’s.  He put plants together by their structural similarities such as flowers, leaves fruit, etc.  Carl Linnaus developed a two name system called binomial this means the plant has two Latin names. The first name is the Genus and the second name is the Species.  Genus is the larger grouping and under that umbrella are all the different species.  The genus name on a plant tag is usually a noun and the species name is an adjective that describes the genus noun, an example is the latin word Cornus, the common name is Dogwood.  The plant tag for a Dogwood might read Cornus florida how this is read is flowering dogwood because the Latin word florida means flowering, the adjective describing the noun.  Once you use plant Latin to describe your plants you will recognize some of the more common Latin words found on plant tags, here are a few:

flora-flower
folia-leaves
alba-white
lactiflora-white
lutea-yellow
grandi-big
alpina-alpine/dwarf
florida-flowering
parvi-small
macro-large
minor-smaller

This is just small sample.  Something to keep in mind is some of the words on the above list are the female of the adjective.  Latin assigns gender to all its nouns so any plant Latin word ending in “a” is female, if it ends in “us” its male and ending in “um” is neutral, but the more you see the Latin words on tags the better you will get at translating them.  Wording on plant tags gets even more interesting when a third name is added to the binomeal names. This is the cultivar name and it is capitalized and set off in single quotes.  So going back to the example of the Dogwood, a tag could read Cornus florida ‘Spring Time’.  The word Spring Time is the name of the cultivar.
The more you practise plant Latin the easier it gets, but why bother learning it when it’s easier to just say the common name?  Plant Latin tells us so much more about plants than just the common name.  It tells us way more details and these details can help you decide if it’s the type of plant you are looking for.  Plant Latin tells the color of the plant, how tall it gets, type of leaf, is it prickly, big, small, climbing, ground cover and who found the plant, and even the country it comes from, just to name a few!  So this spring if you come across a tag that reads Narcissus lutea minor ‘Hawera’ don’t be intimidated you are looking at a tag for a daffodil that is yellow and tiny!
felix sit annus novus!
Heather A. Webb
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