By Sara Creamer
Fayette County Master
Gardener Volunteer Coordinator
WASHINGTON CH — Do you resist using the ‘fancy plant name’? What are those botanical (a.k.a. Latin or scientific) names anyway and why use them? All plants (really all living organisms) have a name from a universal naming system based on binomial nomenclature. Binomial means they have two (bi) names (nomial). These two names mean a relationship exists between plants with the same first name, they have some common characteristics, and it gives you clues to identification.
The binomial nomenclature system was formalized by Swedish botanist and doctor Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). The names of plants in Linneaus’ day were in Latin and long and complicated. His method of naming plants simplified the Latin name. The Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, was “Acer orietalis, hederae folio” (translates something like oriental ivy leaved maple). We should be grateful for that. He is also known as the ‘Father of Taxonomy.’ Taxonomy is the science of identifying, classifying and naming plants.
The two names are the genus and specific epithet. The genus names closely related plants. For example, the genus for maples is Acer. The specific epithet gives clues to how the closely related plants are different from each other. Some maples are Acer saccharum (sugar maple), Acer saccharinum (silver maple), Acer palmatum (Japanese maple), or Acer rubrum (red maple). Note that the names are in italics. They may also be underlined (Acer saccharum).
The meaning of the Latin in the specific epithet gives clues to characteristics of a plant. Some of these may already be familiar to you. Saccharum may suggest sweet or sugar to you even though you don’t know a word of Latin or at least you don’t think you do. Other Latin prefixes and suffixes included in specific epithets you may recognize are luteus (yellow), gracile (slender), viridi (green), or florus (flowers). Guess these: grandi, columnaris, compactus and palmatum.
The advantage of knowing the botanical name is that you know for sure the identity of a plant. You can communicate with gardeners anywhere and be sure you are buying the exact plant you want for that special place. A common plant name varies from person to person and region to region. Lycorus squamigera is known as magic lily, resurrection lily, surprise lily, and naked lady lily to name a few. What do you call this lily that puts up foliage in the spring, dies down in early summer, and sends up a pink bloom in August?
Don’t worry about pronouncing the name if that is why you resist using them. Just get the correct number of syllables in the correct order. A gardener will know that CLEM-a-tis is the same as Cle-MAH-tis.
The answer to the quiz is large, columnar, compact, and palm shaped. See, you do know Latin.