GARDENING: Learn Latin to Know Your Plants

By Daly, Lynn | The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), August 12, 2000 | Go to article overview

GARDENING: Learn Latin to Know Your Plants


Daly, Lynn, The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland)


How much can you tell about a plant from the name of it? Well, many gardeners find their plants easier to grow than to pronounce the Latin names, which often seem like a load of gobbledegook.

Let me put your mind at rest. It's not actually that difficult to make sense of some of the Latin and once you get the hang of it, the names can help identify the colour, habit, scent, flower and leaf style of the particular gem you find at the garden centre.

For instance, if a specimen has the word alba after it, then the flowers will be white. If it is labelled citriodora it will be lemon-scented, while angustifolia will give you narrow leaves.

All plants have two names. The first is the genus, which indicates which clan it comes from. For instance, all clematis come under the title Clematis, whatever their habit. This will usually be seen as just an initial in front of its second name.

The second name, denoting the species, gives more of a descriptive clue. For instance, C. macropetala tells you that the clematis you have chosen is many petalled, the translation of the Latin name.

If the two names are joined by an x, that signifies that the plant is a hybrid - the result of interbreeding between two species of the same family.

The plant may also have a third name, although not a Latin one, to show it is a variety of that particular species. The name may be in honour of the person or nursery who introduced it, or named after someone or something outstanding about it, such as its vivid colour - for example, C. macropetala Blue Bird.

But just when you thought everything was clear, more vagaries come into play.

Some hybrids only have the Latin name followed by the variety, such as C.

Aljonushka, while others show only the country of origin, such as Kerria japonica, originating from Japan.

While some Latin is difficult to follow, many plant names are quite user-friendly.

It doesn't take a genius, for instance, to work out that Hydrangea serrata indicates that the hydrangea has serrated leaves.

Other obvious common descriptions include Cotoneaster microphyllus (small-leaved) and Thymus vulgaris, which means the common form of thyme.

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