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The New York Times Book ReviewFor those who want a better understanding of plant taxonomy, Latin for Gardeners…is a treasure.
Since Latin became the standard language for plant naming in the eighteenth century, it has been intrinsically linked with botany. And while mastery of the classical language may not be a prerequisite for tending perennials, all gardeners stand to benefit from learning a bit of Latin and its conventions in the field. Without it, they might buy a Hellebores foetidus and be unprepared for its fetid smell, or a Potentilla reptans with the expectation that it will stand straight as ...
Since Latin became the standard language for plant naming in the eighteenth century, it has been intrinsically linked with botany. And while mastery of the classical language may not be a prerequisite for tending perennials, all gardeners stand to benefit from learning a bit of Latin and its conventions in the field. Without it, they might buy a Hellebores foetidus and be unprepared for its fetid smell, or a Potentilla reptans with the expectation that it will stand straight as a sentinel rather than creep along the ground.
An essential addition to the gardener’s library, this colorful, fully illustrated book details the history of naming plants, provides an overview of Latin naming conventions, and offers guidelines for pronunciation. Readers will learn to identify Latin terms that indicate the provenance of a given plant and provide clues to its color, shape, fragrance, taste, behavior, functions, and more.
Full of expert instruction and practical guidance, Latin for Gardeners will allow novices and green thumbs alike to better appreciate the seemingly esoteric names behind the plants they work with, and to expertly converse with fellow enthusiasts. Soon they will realize that having a basic understanding of Latin before trips to the nursery or botanic garden is like possessing some knowledge of French before traveling to Paris; it enriches the whole experience.
The botanical Latin that scientists use today is quite distinct from the Latin of classical authors. It draws heavily on Greek and other languages, and uses many words that would have seemed barbarous to Roman writers on plants such as Pliny the Elder (23–79CE). Although its origins lie in the descriptive language used by those early botanists, it has developed into a specialized technical dialect, much simpler than classical Latin, but with a vocabulary that continues to expand to meet changing scientific requirements.
Until well into the 18th century, Latin was the language of international scholarship. It was therefore natural that botanists should use Latin in preference to vernacular plant names, which varied from language to language and region to region. From the 16th century onward, pioneering voyages of discovery had resulted in a wealth of hitherto unknown plant material arriving in the studies of botanists throughout Europe. Technical developments in optical equipment meanwhile enabled far closer scrutiny of the structure of plants. Since Latin plant names were intended to encapsulate the differences between species, names often consisted of long strings of descriptive words, which were cumbersome to use and difficult to correlate. Then, in the mid-18th century, Carl Linnaeus (see p. 132) introduced his two-word, or binomial, system for naming plants and animals, by which a single epithet distinguished the species from all others in its genus.
This system transformed plant taxonomy. During the next century, it became clear that an internationally agreed set of rules for nomenclature was required. Through the international botanical congresses of the 19th and 20th centuries, this eventually led to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), published in 1952, and revised several times since. This sets forth the principles by which plant names are formed and established; all major botanical journals and institutions abide by its rules and recommendations.
In view of which, it may seem strange that plant names are subject to so many changes. Gardeners may feel particularly aggrieved to have to learn a new name, when the old one seemed to do the job perfectly well. Unfortunately, botanists do not always agree on the relationship of one plant to another, and where conflicting classifications arise, changes of name may be the consequence. For instance, once evidence emerged that the genera Cimicifuga and Actaea were more closely related than previously thought, the plants that gardeners were accustomed to call Cimicifuga had to be relearned as Actaea.
The name Actaea was chosen over Cimicifuga because of the principle of priority, which is laid out in the ICBN. This states that where two entities are judged to be the same, the first name published must be used. Other consequences of taxonomic change can be equally confusing. For example, when species in Montbretia were reclassified as Crocosmia, the plant previously named Montbretia x crocosmiiflora (the montbretia with flowers like a crocosmia) became Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora (the crocosmia with flowers like a crocosmia).
Reclassification of plants has proceeded with even greater intensity in the era of DNA analysis, leading to significant numbers of name changes. The good news for gardeners is that the certainty with which DNA analysis allows relationships to be stated should eventually result in a far more robust taxonomy, where plant names will become more stable than ever before.
Botanical Latin for Beginners
When writing Latin names, it is important to order the various elements in the correct sequence and observe typographical conventions.
Family (for example, Sapindaceae)
This appears as upper- and lowercase, and the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature also recommends italics. Family names are easily recognized, as they end in -aceae.
Genus (for example, Acer)
This appears in italics with an uppercase initial letter. It is a noun and has a gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter. The plural term is genera. When listing several species of the same genus together, the genus name is often abbreviated, for example: Acer amoenum, A. barbinerve, and A. calcaratum.
Species (for example, Acer palmatum)
The species is a specific unit within the genus and the term is often referred to as the specific epithet. This appears in lowercase italics. It is mostly an adjective, but can sometimes be a noun (for example, Agave potatorum, where the epithet means "of drinkers"). Adjectives always agree in gender with the noun they follow, but nouns used as specific epithets are invariable. It is the combination of the generic and specific epithet that gives us the species name in the binomial, or two-word, system.
Subspecies (for example, Acer negundo subsp. mexicanum)
This appears as lowercase italics and is preceded by the abbreviated form subsp. (or occasionally ssp.), which appears as lowercase roman type. It is a distinct variant of the main species.
Varietas (for example, Acer palmatum var. coreanum)
This appears as lower-case italics and is preceded by the abbreviated form var., which appears as lowercase roman type. Also known as the variety, it is used to recognize slight variations in botanical structure.
Forma (for example, Acer mono f. ambiguum)
This appears as lower-case italics and is preceded by the abbreviated form f., which appears in lower-case roman type. Also known as the form, it distinguishes minor variations such as the color of the flower.
Cultivar (for example, Acer forrestii 'Alice')
This appears as upper- and lowercase roman type with single quotation marks. Also known as a named variety, it is applied to artificially maintained plants. Modern cultivar names (i.e., those after 1959) should not include Latin or Latinized words.
Hybrid (for example, Hamamelis x intermedia)
This appears as upper- and lowercase italics and is preceded by a x that is not italicized (note that this is a multiplication sign, not the letter x). This may be applied to plants that are the product of a cross between species of the same genus. If a hybrid results from the crossing of species from different genera then the hybrid generic name is preceded by a multiplication sign. However, if a hybrid results from the grafting of species, this is indicated by an addition sign rather than a multiplication sign.
Synonyms (for example, Plumbago indica, syn. P. rosea)
Within a classification a plant has only one correct name, but it may have several incorrect ones. These are known as synonyms (abbreviated as syn.) and may have arisen due to two or more botanists giving the same plant different names or from a plant being classified in different ways.
Where common names are used, they appear as lowercase roman type except where they derive from a proper name, such as that of a person or a place. (For example, common soapwort, but London pride.) Note that Latinized versions of proper names do not have capital letters, for example, forrestii or freemanii. Many Latin genus names are in ordinary use as common names, for example fuchsia; in this context, they appear in lowercase roman type, and can also be used in the plural (fuchsias, rhododendrons).
In Latin, adjectives must agree with the gender of the noun which they qualify; therefore in botanical names, the species must agree with the genus. An exception to this rule is made if the species name is a noun (for example, forrestii, of Forrest); in this instance, there is no genus and species agreement. To help familiarize the reader with the different gender forms, where a specific epithet appears, the masculine, feminine, and neuter versions are usually listed—for example, grandiflorus (grandiflora, grandiflorum).
This is a simplified outline of the binomial system, but do beware—unfortunately, exceptions to these rules, along with further complexities of structure, abound. As this is a book aimed at gardeners, not botanists, and is not a Latin primer, only the broad principles are dealt with here. The primary purpose of this work is to encourage the blossoming of better gardeners, not of Latin scholars. Helped by an informed understanding of botanical nomenclature, it is hoped that gardeners will be able to make better gardens filled with better plants; plants that sit well in their site, thrive in the conditions provided for them, and have the form, habit, and color that make for the most aesthetically pleasing association with their neighbors.
Excerpted from Latin for gardeners by LORRAINE HARRISON Copyright © 2012 by Quid Publishing. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 31, 2013
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