The Swedes are a resourceful people – I mean, who else could morph the invention of dynamite into the Nobel peace prize, sell boxy economy vehicles called Volvos in the early 1970s, when Detroit was flogging nothing but sleek muscle cars, market that annoying earworm music by ABBA across the globe, remake the humble Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) into the haute couture of jam, and turn their vast forests into boxed IKEA stick furniture that you have to put together yourself, thus saving themselves the labor.
Sweden was also home to the first botanist proper, Carl Linnaeus (1701-1778), the man who gave us our often confusing Latin-based plant (and animal) classification system.
So when you go to your local garden centre looking for japonica, a botanical reference that means ‘from Japan’ and includes hundreds of different species (Camellia japonica, Pieris japonica, Kerria japonica and so on), I blame none other than the illustrious Mr. Linnaeus for the confusion.
That being said, there’s a lot that can be learned from a botanical name proper, which is made up of two names, the first specifying genus and the second indicating species.
For the most part, Latin was the language of choice because it was widely used in the scientific community at the time and was understood universally across the known world.
Of course, there are always exceptions, and plants named after people (usually famous botanists or plant explorers) is one of them – which is why we have Forsythia (William Forsyth), Heuchera (Heinrich von Heucher), Viburnum davidii (Pere Armand David), Euonymus fortunei (Robert Fortune) and, yes, even Linnaea borealis (Carl Linnaeus).
Then there’s the question of Latin grammar, which can render a reference to ‘white’ as albus (masculine), alba (feminine) or album (neutral) – so you will just have to get used to these subtle variations – other references to flower or foliage colour include nigra (black), atropurpurea (dark purple), glauca (blue or covered with a white waxy bloom), rosea (red or pink), and lutea (yellow).
Then there’s the most controversial topic of all – how to pronounce these names properly – and I have to admit that I have been corrected (both rightly and wrongly) on more than one occasion.
The problem is that even well-trained gardeners don’t stick to the proper rules, but tend to go with the flow of their horticultural peers.
Take the Latin name for maple for instance, which is Acer – most of us pronounce it as ay-ser, while proper Latin calls for a hard ‘k’ and a pronunciation of a-ker.
But who am I to argue with the experts.
The name of a plant can even tell you a lot about its form, take leaf shape, for instance, which is often referred to in the second name that defines species. You have undulata (wavy-edged), dentata (toothed), serrata (finely toothed), pinnata (divided into leaflets), cordata (heart-shaped) and crenata (scalloped).
Then there are names that simply apply to the aesthetics, such as formosa, which just means ‘beautiful’.
Of course, it is no easy feat to memorize all the plant names, and it seems that as soon as you have got most of them committed to that biological computer that we call the mind, they go and change the name again. You can blame that on modern genetics, as the old means of classifying plants visually is simply being bettered by modern science.
In either case, just make sure not to ask for ‘just japonica’ the next time you visit your local garden centre.
Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author