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July 2009


DIRT

A Rose is a Rosa
by Dianne Benson

A LITTLE BOTANICAL LATIN MAKES A BIG IMPRESSION WHEN YOU'RE TALKING PLANTS

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When messing around with dirt, prepare for the absurd. Case in point: the popular British blogger who suggests the only proper way to rid your garden of slugs is to eat them. Or the Russian who, I like to think, was so akin to the natural world that a three-inch fir tree grew in his lung (look it up!). So why, then, does a little dose of "garden Latin" befuddle those with green thumbs?

Latin names loom at you in arboretums, parks, nurseries and from other people's privileged gardens—so get used to them. Much of the fun of familiarizing yourself with Latin names is the ability to spout them in conversation. Don't worry about pronunciation—it is enough to know the words; everyone says them differently, anyway. (If correctness is your thing, the site finegardening.com not only gives you the phonetics in their "Pronunciation Guide for Plants," but an audio demonstration that should quell all your fears.)

Adopted in the 18th century by Swede Carl Linnaeus, botanical Latin is not so much a language as it is a method of nomenclature and classification based on structural features of the plant (or animal or mineral). Botanical Latin isn't strictly Latin—nor is it ancient or fuliginous—but a language unto itself, created so that plants names can be recognized the world over. Using the cheerful, easy and often-silly common names won't do the trick in a nursery in the south of France or a Hong Kong flower market. What rolls more mellifluously off the tongue? Viola tricolor or Johnny-jump-up? Although either way, it is a pansy.

If you know a bit of French or Spanish or have ever had a run-in with a Catholic mass in Italy, you will spot some of the most obvious roots in a jiffy. Tulipa, Iris, Rosa, Magnolia and Lilium—even Paeonia is close enough to peony to figure it out. Pinus is a pine tree and Cedrus is a cedar, but Picea is a spruce and Tsuga, a hemlock—so go figure.

Most plants and trees come with a three-name description. The first word, the genus (or plant group), is often familiar, like Tulipa or Hydrangea, and is always capitalized and italicized. The second word, the species, is also italicized but lowercase and is oftentimes the biggest clue to what the trait of the plant might be. The third word has nothing to do with the natural order of the plant and is not italicized, but is the clarifier for a hybrid (a crossing of two species) or a cultivar. It goes like this: Athyrium nipponicum 'Pictum.' Athyrium is the most beautiful of the fern families, nipponicum hints at its Japanese lineage and Pictum at its gorgeous striated color—almost painterly. Doesn't that make sense?

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The species name will also warn you whether or not it might suit your own climate. Amazonica and aethiopica often define tropical plants, so you would not expect them to survive our winters. A little less specific are regional words like alpinum—aha! The Alps!—which means the plant will be much better off in your trough (rock) than in your perennial garden (dirt); aquatica and maritimus, by the sea (especially good when gardening near the ocean) and sylvaticum, woodsy, so of course that particular plant or tree likes shady environment.

When buying out-of-flower perennials (such as during sales), turn to the descriptive names for clues on the eventual bloom color. Alba is white, also virginus, of course; lutea, yellow; aurea—all-important plant kingdom gold; azureus and caeruleum are blue; sanguineum that blood red and purpurea is purple while atropurpurea is that coveted very dark purple—almost black—that I love so much, especially when playing off those golden aureomarginatas.

Leaf shapes can be very telling—cordatus heart-shaped, lunatus crescent moon-shaped and globosus round. If, like me, you are on a constant hunt for bicolor and tricolor plants, then it's maculatum, marginatus, reticulata and especially variegatum for you. And as for my very favorites, the weeping, drooping, arching category of mostly shrubs and small trees, then it's horizontale, campanulatum and especially pendula/us/um.

If smell is a sense you like to indulge, there are many great evocative words. A lovely fragrance is denoted by odoratum, and sweeter still by fragrans and aromatica. An absolute assault on your olfactory sense can be detected easily. "Beware this stinks" will be revealingly labeled felosmus and foetidus, putidus or the deadly sounding graveolens. Vomit-inducing was looked upon as a healing trait and therefore good, which is why some old Christmas hollies are dubbed Ilex vomitoria.

Post tenebras lux
Light after darkness. So there, friendly Latin names will certainly make you feel closer to your garden, smarter in general and impart just that right little frisson of smugness when you're showing off your garden.

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