As Juliet said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Why bother to learn the scientific names of plants? It’s good for your brain, and it will open up a world of fascinating tales of your favorite plants. And you will be speaking in tongues!
One of my favorite tasks at the Alaska Botanical Garden is leading plant walks. It may be a general tour or our monthly What’s in Bloom walk during the summer months or even a Winter Walk about cold weather adaptations of plants. Did you know willows can photosynthesize in the winter due to the green color of their bark?
There is also a Nomenclature Walk for those wanting to learn more about the origin of the names of plants. I subtitle this one “Every Plant Tells a Story”.
Let’s pick a couple of common native plants and learn their stories.
Take the Wild Rose for example. Botanically known as Rosa aciularis, locally it’s called Prickly Rose. (Pronounce the species name as ass-ik-yew-LAH-ris). The genus name, Rosa is easy to figure out and the specific epithet (the second word) means “little needle” or “little pin”. If you grab the stem of this plant, you will find it is well named.
Botanical Latin draws heavily on Greek and other languages, but Latin was the international language of scholarship, and so it was a way to communicate information when plant exploration and knowledge were exploding all over the world.
Plant names may include places of origin (japonica), names of the discoverer (Banksia for Joseph Banks), or a patron (Duchess Clive for Clivia), or refer to color (alba for white) or growing location (alpestris for mountain habitats).
We are already using words from many languages. Cognates are words that are relatively the same in other languages. For example, English to Spanish music/musica, police/policia, chocolate/chocolate etc. There are many examples in French too: téléphone, professeur, entrepreneur, musique etc.
Linnaeus introduced binomial nomenclature in the mid 18th century at a time when physicians and herbalists needed accurate information since plants were the main source of medicine.
Linnaeus’ favorite flower was the Twinflower, Linnaea borealis. His friend Gronovius named it for him, and the specific epithet borealis tells us it’s a northern species.
Another plant is Taraxicum officinale, the common dandelion. Taraxicum is from the Arabic for a bitter herb, and officinale is from the word officinalis which literally means “of or belonging to an offic?na‘, the storeroom of a monastery, where medicines and other necessaries were kept.” From Wikipedia.
No picture needed!
Remember this from your high school science class: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species? Or the mnemonic: King Phillip Came Over For Great Spaghetti. For our purposes here, concentrate on the last two categories: the genus is always capitalized, and species is always written in lower case. Myosotis alpestris, the Forget-me-not, is the Alaska State Flower. Myosotis describes the leaf shape, Greek for mouse ear, and alpestris means “of lower, wooded, mountain habitats.”
One more: Achillea millefolium, or Yarrow. The genus name Achillea comes from the story that Achilles used the leaves of the plant to staunch his warrior’s wounds, and the specific epithet basically means 1,000 (mille) and leaves (folium). A plant with Achillea-like leaves might be called achilleifolius. Get it?
Subspecies and Variety
There are levels below Genus and Species. You might see L. for Linnaeus, or another person’s name. Subspecies is written as subsp. or ssp. (a variant of main species). Another is Variety-lower case italics, written var.
You can take a deeper dive into Latin usage but take it easy on yourself! Don’t be afraid of the names. Have fun learning something new. Pick a couple of favorite plants to research and let the plants tell you their stories. Don’t get bogged down in pronunciation. These have changed over time and place. Do your best. If you can pronounce dinosaur names, you can do this! Just concentrate on the genus and species name.
Helpful Hint: in English, a vowel says its own name at the end of a syllable. This is known as an open vowel, as in po ta to. In other words, the long vowel sound.
Here are some books with phonetic pronunciations to help you:
The Gardener’s Botanical by Ross Bayton
Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison
And the classic: Dictionary of Plant Names by Allan J. Coombes (find on a used book site).
Enjoy the journey!