You say potato, I say Solanum tuberosum: the trouble with botanical Latin

“Ah, they’ve got that Hypoestes sanguinolenta I saw in DG Hessayon’s Houseplant Expert book in Woolworths right now! And I picked up a Saintpaulia ionantha with really cute frilly flowers, too. I didn’t find a Euphorbia obesa though.”

That was me, aged about 11. Seriously. I have always loved Latin names for plants. I studied Latin GCSE, and whereas I struggled with French, I loved Latin (“Caecilius in horto est” – what’s not to like?), especially when it came to plant names. It was useful and descriptive, and – I admit it – made me feel clever.

I know I am – how can I put this politely to myself? – an outlier. Many adults struggle with plants’ scientific names: they can be hard to pronounce and hard to read on the page; their meaning is obscure to the newcomer, and they sometimes make you sound like a bit of a prig if you bandy them around in the wrong company (guilty as charged).

P1040024

Wormwood or whatever: botanical Latin comes in handy at plant shows.

My love of Latin – and what I suspect is the general population’s lukewarm feelings towards it – bubbled to the top of my consciousness recently when I received an email from a freelance writer, complaining about my insertion of common names into their copy. Their argument was that common names are just as hard to learn as Latin, except with Latin you can be sure everyone knows what you are talking about.

As I explained to them in my reply, it’s complicated; common names may be many and varied, across different geographical locations, (I always want to call the houseleek “welcome home husband how drunk you be” – look at a picture of a sempervivum in flower and use your imagination to figure out that one) but Latin names can change too as the botanists shuffle the cards in the deck that is the plant family in a neverending quest for accuracy: that’s why the delightfully named Dicentra spectabilis became the rather less elegant Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Some common names are simply the genus of the scientific name, which can be a help or a hindrance;* others can refer to multiple, completely different plants – bridal veil is a good example, as is daisy (which can refer to pretty much any member of the aster family, and beyond). And some common names can be downright misleading, such as February orchid as I wrote recently.

In Guardian Weekend, where our audience is a general one, we have to try to avoid alienating the absolute beginners who may flick to the gardening page while not talking down to the many expert gardeners who read the pages. My compromise is to use both in the body of an article: common name first (the most common common name, as decided by me, but usually guided by sources that include the RHS Plant Finder, BBC Gardeners World and Shoot Gardening), followed by the Latin in brackets – in the web version, the Latin will almost always link through to a useful website about the plant. In picture captions, I just use common names as there isn’t room for both, assuming that this can be cross referenced with the main copy.  This way around, the non-Latin fans can read the common name and let their eye skate over the Latin; the Latin fans can snort their derision at the common name, then move on to the real business of the genus and species.

The Latin, if you can bear to engage (and if you’re reading this blog you probably can), can help you learn about plants: citrodora means lemon-scented; punctatus means with spots. If it’s a language you’re still learning – or if you want a reference work – RHS Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison is very useful.

 

*Do I write Heuchera ‘Purple Palace’ (Heuchera micrantha ‘Purple Palace)?

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12 thoughts on “You say potato, I say Solanum tuberosum: the trouble with botanical Latin

  1. From my perspective, talking about the more unusual edible plants, the scientific names (they’re not all Latin!) are indispensable – it’s imperative you can check you’ve got the right species before you tuck in. But I put the common names in too, as they’re the ones people are generally more familiar with and because they often tell you something interesting about the history of the plant 🙂

    • Emma, I am fascinated by that – I just found (via Wikipedia, though presume it’s right) that many dinosaurs have Mongolian names as part of their binomial nomenclature because they were found in Mongolia.

  2. I’m a Latin snob, I admit it. I’ve had occasions when clients call something by its common name and I look blankly having no clue what plant they’re talking about. Which is kinda the same problem in reverse. I’ve heard the Latin is alienating argument again and again but frankly I had to learn it ( my school Latin has only be helpful in a very rudimentary way!) I still have to learn it every time I find a new plant I like. It’s efficient, it international and if scientists would layoff recategoriding with such great haste and excitement it would be fairly stable too.
    I’m not a fan of dumbing down language. The Plain English speaking bunch are derogating the beauty and precision of language as is using a common name where Latin would do better.
    A fine line to tread for you I suspect but I will always try to use the Latin, maybe that’s the problem with my blog 🙂

  3. Ahh Caecilius. I had a thing for Quintus; I preferred him to Simon Le Bon.
    My biggest problem with common names is Japonica. Someone tells me they have a Japonica and my heart sinks. It seems to be applied to any plant you care to think of. I live in fear of the word.

    • Ah Japonica – covers a multitude of sins! What was that Latin course called? I can’t remember much, beyond ‘Metella in atrium sedet’ etc but it occasionally helps me out with scientific names …

  4. It’s a hot topic at the moment, with plenty of bloggers declaring their love (or not) of botanical Latin. I love picking through the meanings of the name – it’s the botanical equivalent of a treasure hunt for me with all kinds of stories about plant hunters, scientific discoveries, even botanical jokes winkled out in the process. I’ve started a “Latin without tears” thread on my blog as a result and had a couple of fun quizzes over the winter months – fun to do for outliers like me and I didn’t even study Latin at school (though I understand the reference to Caecilius from all my school friends that did)!

  5. What you do on The Guardian is spot on – don’t go changing! 🙂 you have to have both for the reasons you point out.

    Personally I love the scientific name because it adds depth. I learnt this because I was super interested, normal people won’t go out of their way to do it so it’s great that publications like The Guardian are helping educate the masses little by little. People might see Lady’s Mantle first but after repeatedly seeing it next to Alchemilla mollis it will become familiar.

    In the past I’ve seen a few comments around the web that Latin names are too complicated etc and we should do away with them for being geeky. But I think the opposite is true. The true names are generally more interesting and do the plant more justice in this day and age.

    Both names are fine and everyone should follow your example. And I bet most people would love to know that it doesn’t matter how you say potato or tomato, they are both a Solanum which is why they can be joined together into Frankenstein veg!

  6. I like the Latin names because I know exactly what is being spoken about, but as Michelle says, the common names can tell their own story. I think what you are doing in the Guardian is the right balance in that context.

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