Wild Ones   Botanical Latin 101  
By Fran Gustman

Recently I was discussing loosestrife with a friend. She thought it was yellow. I was sure it was purple. It turns out that loosestrife is the common name for two different plants. One is Lythrum salicaria, which is also known as purple loosestrife and is highly invasive and banned in many states. The other is Lysimachia ciliata, which is native and is yellow. This is a good example of how learning the Latin names will help you know your plants and make the best choices.

Long after the Roman civilization had disappeared and Latin was no longer spoken, a formula based on Latin roots was created as a way of maintaining consistency in the naming of living beings. Botanic Latin was created in the eighteenth century by Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), a Swede who also Latinized his own name, as was common among the educated at the time.

Living beings are now divided and positioned in a family tree called the Taxonomic Hierarchy. All plants are in the category called the Kingdom Plantae. Following Plantae are more and more specific categories, which the mnemonic device “Kings play chess on fine green slate” may help in keeping straight: Kingdom, Phyllum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. While it is possible to list all the different parts of the family tree when talking about a plant, it would be like naming parents, grandparents, great grandparents and their parents whenever someone was introduced. It is easiest to just use genus and species.

In print, Genus is indicated by italics and it is capitalized – as in Rudbeckia. The species is also in italics but is in lower case – Rudbeckia fulgida. This is a black-eyed Susan that is native to eastern North America, with a range from Indiana to New Jersey. If there were a natually occuring purple Rudbeckia fulgida, it could have been identified as a special “variety” and called Rudbeckia fulgida variety purpurea (which can be abbreviated as Rudbeckia fulgida var. purpurea.) However, if a human being rather than nature has created a new plant, the result is not natural and is called a “cultivar” (cv.) instead of a variety. One cultivar of Rudbeckia fulgida is Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm.’ The cultivar name is put in single quotes and is not in italics. (And if you are writing the names and are getting tired of repeating them over and over, after the first naming, it is OK to abbreviate, as with R. f. ‘Goldsturm.’) To sum it all up: if the plant name is all in italics, it is a naturally occuring plant, as is another black-eyed Susan, R. hirta. If the last part of the name is in single quotes and is not italicized, the plant has been genetically altered by a breeder.

Since Latin was not spoken when this system was created, there is disagreement over how to pronounce the names. If you look at the pronunciation guides in British gardening books, you will find that the accents are on different syl-LA-bles than in American books! However, the good thing is that the whole horticultural world uses these same names, whatever the pronunciation.

If you're interested in learning more about the technical aspects of botanic nomenclature go to www.bgbm.fu-berlin.de/iapt/nomenclature/code/tokyo-e/Art_28.htm.

Fran Gustman is a past editor of the Wild Ones Journal.

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Updated: Jun 12, 2005.