Quid est in nomine?

When confronted with the complexities of botanical Latin many highly accomplished gardeners shrug, sigh and seek solace in Shakespeare.

Camellia × williamsii

Just like Juliet they ask “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Unfortunately, the subject cannot be dismissed quite that lightly. Doubtless the horticultural knowhow of any self-respecting gardener would never let them mistake a dog rose (Rosa canina) for a rock rose (Cistus ladanifer), or a guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) for a Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis). Only one of these very diverse plants bears any resemblance to Juliet’s sweet-smelling rose, that which we commonly call the dog rose. The clue, of course, is in the Latin name, which helpfully tells us it belongs to the genus Rosa, of the Rosaceae family, while canina pertains to dogs. It is easy to understand why many of us fall for the poetry and charm of common names. Who can resist the romance of flowers with names such as love-lies-bleeding, forget-me-not or love-in-a-mist? (Although these pretty names can lead the gardener up the proverbial garden path as, for instance, the latter beauty also answers to the name devil-in-the-bush.) And after all, these florid appellations are so much easier to remember, and certainly to pronounce, than Amaranthus caudatus, Myosotis sylvatica and Nigella damascena.

Ilex aquifolium (common holly)

However poetic-sounding common names may be, they often tell us nothing about the origin of a plant, or important things such as its form, colour and size. When selecting plants it is so useful to know that those with repens in their name are low-growing or creeping, unlike those called columnaris, which shoot up tall. Think of the frustration avoided when planting a sunny bed if only one knew beforehand that noctiflorus flowers only open at night, and yet what helpful information to have if planning a garden primarily to be used in the evening.

Hedera helix (English or common ivy)

The 18th-century botanist Carl Linnaeus introduced his simplified system of naming plants at a time when it was vital that physicians and herbalists could accurately identify and name plants, as these were the main source of medicine. Latin was the universal language of scholars and scientists and it is Linnaeus’s binomial, or two-word, system that still forms the basis of the botanical Latin used by gardeners today. Thanks to Linnaeus and his colleagues a modern-day gardener in San Francisco can email a horticulturist in Hong Kong about Chenopodium bonus-henricus and know they are both discussing exactly the same plant. Could the same be said if their discussion relied on using one or more of its many common names that include goosefoot, shoemaker’s heels or spearwort?

Far from being an esoteric or archaic language, when used appropriately botanical Latin can become a practical tool for creating a beautiful, productive and thriving garden that is quite as useful as a sharp pair of secateurs or a well-made trowel. Aided by this book the gardener can now answer the question “What’s in a name?” and they and their garden will benefit from understanding the wealth of information that has hitherto lain hidden within the mysterious world of Latin names.

Plant names: in translation

1. Hippeastrum puniceum (Amaryllis equestris). It is not easy to fathom the link between this popular bulbous flower and a horse, yet equestris (equestris, equestre) means relating to horses or horse riders, while Hippeastrum comes from the Greek hippeos, a mounted man, and astron, a star. Rather more straightforward is puniceus (punicea, puniceum), as it simply means reddish-purple in colour.

2. Camellia × williamsii. By crossing Camellia saluenensis with C japonica, John Williams produced a group of hybrid camellias that have become firm favourites with many gardeners as they are tough, easy to grow and have beautiful blooms. Flower colours range from white to pink and rose-purple.

3. Ilex aquifolium (common holly) is to Christmas as eggs are to Easter. Ilex means the holm-oak, probably a reference to the similarity of the two plants’ leaves. The “aqui”, of the aquifolium, probably refers to the shiny, watery appearance of the leaves – aka folium.

4. Hedera helix (English or common ivy) is the least demanding of plants. Evergreen, with a twining and clinging habit (helix means spiral-shaped), it will grow in sun or shade and is fully hardy. In winter its berries provide an important food source for birds, while in late summer and autumn bees feast on its small white flowers.

‘RHS Latin for Gardeners’ by the Royal Horticultural Society and Lorraine Harrison, published by Mitchell Beazley, £12.99 www.octopusbooks.co.uk

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