Latin Names Are Your Friend

Every gardener eventually has to confront the dreaded Latin names of plants. We all know why it’s important – because the common names are so misleading. Flowering maple isn’t a maple. Yellow flag is an iris; Spanish flag is not. If someone asked you about bluebell, would you know what they meant? And good grief, what about sage? There are more than 400 sages, including the culinary types, annual ornamentals, and perennial ornamentals.

In fact, calling just about anything by its common name is a potential minefield of confusion. But the solution always seems so overwhelming. Who has time or energy to learn a whole new language, and a dead language at that?

Think of it this way: how did you learn English? One word at a time. You even learned to handle words that have a double meaning, and words that sound exactly like other words but mean something completely different. Baby steps.

And that’s what I recommend to you. Learn one or two Latin terms as the need arises, then a couple more, and so on. And don’t worry about pronunciation; you aren’t likely to run into a native Latin speaker who’s going to correct you. Although, the truth is, Latin pronunciation is a lot easier than, say, English, because it’s regular.

All scientific names have two elements (genus and species), and sometimes a third denoting a variety or cultivar, and many of those words are composites of two or more Latin terms, each of which has a nugget of meaning. These nuggets may relate to color, size, texture, shape of flower or leaf, habitat, or sometimes the person who originally discovered it for science (these are the most interesting stories, in my opinion).

On line or in the library, you’ll find many resources that list the meanings, and it’s fun to explore them. But today what I want to bring to your attention is the way the Latin words sometimes give us a hint about gardening success.

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