Monday, August 3, 2009

The Importance of Latin

Today I received a fall plant catalog from a company I have never done business with. I noticed right away several things that set off my alarm bells. First was the front cover - where the flower images had clearly been modified to a point well beyond what the plants probably look like in the garden. Don't get me wrong. Good garden catalogs exaggerate their images, too. That's why it's important to have an idea of what the plant looks like in real life before ordering. Catalog photographers will add extra flowers to a plant to make it seem more prolific and they will use lenses, lighting and Photoshop to 'enhance' the image, and then there is the fact that inks and dyes do not always accurately copy the color on the film. But this catalog went too far and the flowers look fake.

The second problem was with the names of plants. They did not include Latin names. I'm a big fan of Latin names. Common names are not always common. A plant I know as butterfly weed someone else may know as orange glory flower (and when I first heard that name I had NO idea what they were talking about). But both are the same plant - Asclepias tuberosa. If I google butterfly weed or orange glory flower I will probably find what I'm looking for but what about this entry - Everblooming Iris. That will get you a bunch of catalog listings but no real information. The catalog entry mentions light exposure, height, zones but not water usage or type of soil preferred or how often it needs to be fertilized (another topic, I only fertilize a few plants that are heavy feeders, like roses, and even then I just add compost more often then for the rest of my plants). The Latin name can be used on various websites to get more details (check out the Missouri Botanical Garden website for example - their search page is at

Latin names are generally written in two words - the genus first and then the species. You can think of the genus as a family, most family members have the same last name. Then the species name is the name of that individual. John Smith and Jane Smith and Bob Smith are all Smiths but the John, Jane and Bob tells you which one specifically is being referred to. In the plant world you can abbreviate the genus name after the first time you mention it. So it would be John Smith, Jane S. and Bob S. or Asclepias tuberosa and A. incanata.

So with Asclepias tuberosa Asclepias is the Genus and tuberosa is the Species. Now if you hear of another plant called Asclepias incanta you know that one is going to be a relative to the A. tuberosa. Let's look at the name, tuberosa, that sounds a lot like tuber and you probably know a tuber is a fleshy root structure so guess what? A. tuberosa has a fleshy root structure, specifically a tap root (and if you break that tap root your tuberosa will probably not survive, so don't try to move it).

Oh, but Latin can be hard for the beginning. Good think most gardeners aren't beginners. I bet you know some Latin and you don't know it. Do you know what an Echinacea is? That's the genus name for coneflowers (but not everything sold as a coneflower is an Echinacea). How about Scabiosa? Again, it's Latin. Coreopsis, Gaura, Penstemon, Hydrangea, even Aster!

To sum up Latin is preferred because it means that whoever you talk to will know what plant you're talking about, even if they are in another country and don't speak English (Latin names are the same worldwide). Second, being specific means you can gather more information from various sources, on-line or in books, without getting misled by common names that are potentially common to more than one plant. Third, you will sound really knowledgeable to other gardeners (don't worry about the pronunciation. As a college professor told me:Latin is a dead language and people from different areas pronounce it differently. Just say it loudly and without hesitation and people will think you know the right way to say it. It works well over 95% of the time for me).

I just get in trouble talking to gardeners who don't know the Latin name for something. I often don't know the common names. Is there a common name for Scabiosa?

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