Getting familiar with botanical Latin

The most controversial topic of all – how to pronounce these names properly

Pieris japonica ‘Little Heath will brighten up the yard.

Pieris japonica ‘Little Heath will brighten up the yard.

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


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Pitt Meadows resident Bruno James de Faria shared a picture of Pitt River Bridge taken from the West Coast Express. (Special to The News)
SHARE: Commute flies by – literally and figuratively

Send us your photo showing how you view Maple Ridge or Pitt Meadows, and it could be featured soon

Two people were sent to hospital after a fire was discovered in a north Pitt Meadows home just before the lunch hour on Sunday, (Nov. 29, 2020). (Shane MacKichan/Special to The News)
Couple burned fighting fire in their Pitt Meadows house

Two occupants were transported to hospital while firefighters battle a blaze in a Harris Road home

(Black Press Media files)
‘Potentially damaging’ winds expected in Metro Vancouver

Wind is expected to pick up late Sunday night

Supt. Jennifer Hyland is the officer in charge of the Ridge Meadows RCMP detachment. (The News/files)
Ridge Meadows RCMP release new strategic plan

Plan details what the force will be focused on for the next three years

The new business park at 12835 Lilley Drive in East Maple Ridge has five live/work units on site. (Ronan O’Doherty/ The News)
Maple Ridge’s newest business park tries to set itself apart from competition

More live-work units, green features make it more than a concrete box, developer says

(Dave Landine/Facebook)
VIDEO: Dashcam captures head-on crash between snowplow and truck on northern B.C. highway

Driver posted to social media that he walked away largely unscathed

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Top doctor urges Canadians to limit gatherings as ‘deeply concerning’ outbreaks continue

Canada’s active cases currently stand at 63,835, compared to 53,907 a week prior

A Canadian Pacific freight train travels around Morant’s Curve near Lake Louise, Alta., on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths along the railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in Alberta and British Columbia has found that train speed is one of the biggest factors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

Research concludes effective mitigation could address train speed and ability of wildlife to see trains

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A airport worker is pictured at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Wednesday, March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada extends COVID restrictions for non-U.S. travellers until Jan. 21 amid second wave

This ban is separate from the one restricting non-essential U.S. travel

Langley RCMP issued a $2,300 fine to the Riverside Calvary church in Langley in the 9600 block of 201 Street for holding an in-person service on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, despite a provincial COVID-19 related ban (Dan Ferguson/Black Press Media)
Updated: Langley church fined for holding in-person Sunday service

Calvary church was fined $2,300 for defying provincial order

The Abbotsford Police Department is investigating a shooting on Adair Avenue on Saturday night. (Photo by Dale Klippenstein)
Drive-by shooting in Abbotsford targeted home with young children, police say

Investigators believe home was mistakenly targeted by assailants

Menno Place. (Google Street View image.)
B.C. care home looks to hire residents’ family members amid COVID-19-related staff shortage

Family would get paid as temporary workers, while having chance to see loved ones while wearing PPE

Most Read