Last week I made a little video for Blackfordby Nursery where I started talking about Dicentra spectabilis alba, also known as Bleeding Heart. Later that weekend some people told me they were impressed with the way I just reeled off a complicated sounding Latin name just like that. But if you work with plants, you need to know some Latin.
I’m often asked how I remember all the Latin names of plants. I seem to have always known them; since long before I became a garden designer. I credit my late mum with giving me a love of plants, as she was a keen flower arranger. And while she wasn’t into gardens as much as I am, she knew a lot about plants and flowers and so I must have heard Latin flower names from a very young age.
I can remember, aged about 10, starting my plant journey, looking at the Readers Digest Creative Guide to Gardening (which is still on my bookshelf) and trying to learn as many of the Latin names as I could. I loved the way the complicated sounding names referred to beautiful flowers and unusual plants. It must be true what they say about learning a language at a young age because they have stuck with me.
The science bit
Latin plant names are used professionally for clarity, so when a plant is specified the right plant ends up in your border. Many plants have several ‘common’ names, or several plants are commonly called the same thing. The system of binomial nomenclature (i.e. two names, like a forename and surname) and classification was initially set out by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist. He published his Philosophia Botanica in 1753 which described over 7,000 plant species.
Some plants are named for the plant hunter that discovered them. There are lots of plants that have the ‘surname’ fortunei – they are named after a famous plant hunter Robert Fortune, who is also credited with introducing tea plants from China to India.
Sometimes the Latin name is easy to remember by way of an association with something unrelated. For example, when I was learning the about weeds at horticultural college, I remembered the Latin for a widespread variety by thinking ‘only the media stars get chicks and weed’, which should become clear when I tell you that plant is Stellaria media or Chickweed.
Other plant names you just have to get your tongue around as best you can. Try Ophiopogon planiscapus var. nigrescens. (I have no idea what the common name is, but it’s an interesting pure black grass with purple flowers.) Or Zantedeschia aethiopica which is the lovely Arum lily above.
And although Latin as a language is dead, the naming of plants is continually changing. I discovered, since I did my little demo of Dicentra spectabilis last week, that it’s not called that anymore! It now goes by the somewhat less elegant title Lamprocapnos spectabilis. At least it keeps us all on our toes.
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