Armeria maritima (thrift or sea-pink). Photo - Linda Ross
Latin for garden lovers
Graham Ross explains why learning a little Latin can help you make better choices at the nursery, and open up a world of fascinating horticultural stories.
In 1735, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus invented a binomial, or two-word, naming system for plants. He had realised that the few thousand plants known at the time were only the tip of a huge botanical iceberg, and that the existing plant names, often a sentence long, would quickly become useless. Explorers, many of whom were his students, including Daniel Solander who was on the Endeavour with Captain James Cook on his Pacific voyages, would return from the Americas, China, Japan and Australia with tens of thousands of new plants, all of which would require names.
Linnaeus’ brilliant solution to organising this avalanche of new plants was a ’genus and species’ system for plant naming. It worked a treat and has survived to this day: no mean feat for a development nearly 300 years old. Linnaeus chose both Latin and Greek as the roots of his new language, Botanical Latin. Let me show how he can help you in the garden.
Curcuma australasica (Cape York Lily). Photo - photolibrary.com
Sometimes the plant name will give you an idea of the plant’s geographical origin, or its country of origin. This can be handy when selecting plants at the nursery. Look for these hints:
maritima - coastal or maritime
montanus – from the mountains
deserti – from the desert
novae-zelandiae – from New Zealand
Acaena novae-zelandiae (New Zealand's Piri Piri). Photo - photolibrary
europaeus – from Europe,
chinensis or sinensis – from China
australis – from the south
australasica or australiensis - from Australia
Dianthus chinensis (China pinks). Photo - photolibrary.com
The plant name often gives away a plant’s flower or leaf colour:
alba – white
rubra and erythro – red
xanthos – yellow
aurum – gold
Ranunculus auricomus (Goldilocks buttercup). Photo - photolibrary.com
chryseus – golden
variegatus – variegated
Plectranthus madagascariensis 'Variegatus' (vareigated mint from Madagascar). Photo - photolibrary.com
The plant name may reveal a plant’s shape or habit:
dendron – tree
procumbens and prostratus – prostrate
horizontalis – horizontal, often with a spillover habit
nana and humilis – dwarf
erectus – upright or erect
pendulus – hanging or pendulous
Cotoneaster horizontalis (Rockspray). Photo - photolibrary.com
More of the story
Plant names also commemorate the discoverer, breeder, friend or colleague, all of which adds to the fascinating story behind the plants in our gardens.
‘Banksia’, for instance, refers to Sir Joseph Banks, who did so much work on Australian native flora, while ‘banksiae’ refers to his wife, Lady Dorothea Banks. I love this aspect of plants; here are three of the stories behind some on our most common garden plants.
The Latin name for frangipani is Plumeria, commemorating Charles Plumier (1646-1704) the French botanist and skilled draftsman, artist, painter and wood turner. He was a French monk of the Franciscan order, who, having studied botany, travelled extensively exploring for new plants. He was appointed Royal Botanist to Louis X1V who sent him on an expedition to the Caribbean in 1689-90. On these travels to Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti in the West Indies, Plumier discovered fuchsias, magnolias, lobelia, begonias and the frangipani. He made accurate and detailed drawings of nearly one thousand flowering plants in all, and revived the ancient custom of naming plants after people, though never himself: magnolia in honour of French botanist Pierre Magnol; lobelia after botanist Mathias Obel; begonia celebrating the Commander of the Port of Marseille, Begon; and fuchsia for the German botanist and physician Leonard Fuchs. It was left to Linnaeus to name the frangipani, Plumeria, in his honour.
Plumier's Plumeria, better known as the frangipani. Photo - photolibrary.com
This popular flowering bulb was a native of Mexico and was taken to the Botanic Garden in Madrid, Spain in 1789. Two hundred years earlier chocolate (cocoa), tomatoes and potatoes had made the same journey. The dahlia was named by Antonio Jose Cavanilles, one of the first Spanish botanists to use Linnaeus’s naming system. He commemorated Swedish botanist and pupil of Linnaeus, Dr. Andreas Dahl with the plant. Dahl had unsuccessfully tried to retain Linnaeus’s extensive pressed plant collection in Sweden. It seems likely that is was Sir Joseph Banks who beat him to it, and secured the collection for Kew gardens in London. It was two women, the Scottish Marchioness of Bute and Lady Webster who are credited with introducing the plant to England, from whence it made its way to Australia, after they saw if flowering in Spain.
Dahl's delightful Dahlia. Photo - photolibrary.com
The fastest growing tree in the planet is considered by many to be the princess tree or royal paulownia, Paulownia tomentosa. (Though the Sydney blue gum, Eucalyptus saligna, also makes a claim on the title.) Paulownia was named in honour of the Grand Duchess, Her Imperial Highness, Anna Paulowna of Russia, (1795-1865), daughter of Paul 1, Tsar of Russia, wife to Prince William of Orange and later King William 11 of the Netherlands. She went on to become Queen Consort of the Netherlands. Her name is also spelt ‘Pavlovna’: the latinisation of a person’s name was quite common in the 17th century.
The beauty of Paulownia, named for a Russian princess. Photo - photolibrary.com