Learning My Latin and Having a Ball – in the Garden

  • Post published:01/26/2019
  • Post comments:4 Comments
Rose of Sharon
Rose of Sharon –  with the Latin name Hibiscus syriacus. It is very different from the romantic Rosa This shrub lives on the Bridge of Flowers

Who needs Latin in this modern, high-tech age? Gardeners do!

They need to know Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriaca is not a rose which is named Rosa.  Rose of Sharon could be a hibiscus. Which rose do you want? Of course, if you want a hibiscus, the Rose of Sharon is a great perennial choice.

Knowing your Latin will help you get the rose you want and not a Lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis or a rock rose, Cistus ladanifer.

Latin names of a plant can tell us a lot about that plant. Bouncing Bet is a cute name, thought to refer to a laundry woman. Depending on where you live it might be called soapwort, soap weed, or wild sweet William. Its proper Latin botanical name is Saponaria. If you know a little Latin you will know that there is something soapy about this plant, and that it can be used as soap. Add the species name to get Saponaria officianalias and the medicinal use of this plant is confirmed. Cleanliness is important to good health!

It was the Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus in the 18th century who created the binomial system of describing and categorizing plants, animals and minerals. It is this system that is used today around the world. Latin was the language used by scholars in those days and it remains the standard of accurately naming plants today.

Aquilegea canadensis columbine
Aquilegea canadensis – or the native columbine

Latin words can tell us where plants originated, and the type of climate that will suit them. Think of Aquilegia canadensis. This native columbine from Canada now grows in northeastern United States, and other similar climates. Baptisia australis, false indigo, originated in Australia, but it is now a loved perennial in many parts of the US. Astilbe japonica originated in Japan. And so it goes with canariensis, africanus, hispanicus, orientalis, sinensis, and other such Latin words.

Latin will also describe the shape and habit. Scandens will mean this plant is a climber, repens and procumbens mean a creeping plant. Divaricata means spreading. Phlox divericata is a familiar ground cover. Tomentosa describes wooly with curly matted hairs. The word mollis describes a plant with soft hairy parts, such as Alchemilla mollis which has soft hairy flower stems. All these descriptions make me want to take a closer look at each part of the plants in my garden.

I often find it difficult to describe flower sizes and shapes but here is a list Latin terms. Some terms like maxima are easy. Polyanthus means many flowers, and grandiflorus has large flowers. Foetida means bad smelling while graveolens means heavily and sweetly scented.

Some descriptions of plant shapes are fairly easy to understand because of the Latin root words which are commonly used. Leaves might be cordate or heart-shaped, serrate or toothed, and lunate means shaped like a crescent moon.

Echinacea purpureum – coneflower

We all have favorite colors. Sometimes it is important to know how we are going arrange the plants in our garden and we want to know the color before we buy. Some Latin words for color like alba, and brunnus are easy to understand. White and brown. Others need a little explanation. Lutea and flavum are clear yellow but flavens, flaveola and flavida just mean yellowish. Viridiflora means with green flowers. Glauca means gray or bluish-green, and purpureum means purple.

Needless to say I have only touched on the Latin words that are helpful to a gardener who is trying to find the plant she has in mind. I went to the Bluestone Perennial online catalog to check the differences between the many varieties of the popular campanula, also known as bellflower. I found that Campanula garganica “Dickson’s Gold” is four inches tall and makes a matlike ground cover. Garganica tells us that this plant grew at Mt. Gargano in southern Italy.

Campanula "Joan Elliot"
Campanula  glomerata “Joan Elliott” – one of the bellflowers

Campanula glomerata “Joan Elliot” has deep blue flower clusters on 18 inch stems and begins blooming in early spring. Glomerata is the word that indicates clusters.

Campanula “Purple Sensation” is 14-16 inches tall with three inch pendant purple blossoms. The stunning buds are nearly black. The growth habit is compact and slightly bushy. They bloom from early through late summer.

Campanula trachelium “Bernice” is a tall 24 inch bellflower with a flower inside a flower that will bloom from early to late summer. Trach is Latin for neck, suggesting flower stuck into the neck of another .

Campanula poscharskyana “Blue Waterfall” is an 8-10 inch Serbian variety described as having a cascading habit blooming into late summer.

This is not a complete list of Bluestones’s campanula offerings. I just wanted to begin to show the varieties available of the familiar bellflower and why it is necessary to know the proper name when your gardening friend begs to know the name so she can have one too.

Now you know why I quote Gorden Jenkins –  “I have been learnin’ my Latin, And having a ball!”

Between the Rows  January 19, 2019

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Lisa at Greenbow

    Hobby gardeners didn’t used to even think about Latin. Now days there are so many plants available what with the hybrids, crosses, newly found,you almost need to know at least some basic Latin. A very nice article Pat.

  2. Love the last quote! I think having even just a semester of Latin has helped me with botanical names–not just remembering them and pronouncing them, but also getting hints about the meanings.

  3. Pat

    Beth – I love the song! Our American English does still make use of Latin in our every day speech. Knowing a little Latin can sometimes increase our vocabulary.

  4. Pat

    Lisa – You are right! All those hybrids, and new plants that come on the market make knowing a little Latin a real help.

Leave a Reply