You say potato, I say Solanum tuberosum: the trouble with botanical Latin

Wormwood or whatever: botanical Latin comes in handy at plant shows.

Wormwood or whatever: botanical Latin comes in handy at plant shows.

Update, January 2019: I made an episode of On The Ledge all about botanical Latin - listen here.

“Ah, they’ve got that Hypoestes sanguinolenta I saw in DG Hessayon’s Houseplant Expert book in Woolworths right now! And I picked up a Saintpaulia ionantha with really cute frilly flowers, too. I didn’t find a Euphorbia obesa though.”

That was me, aged about 11. Seriously. I have always loved Latin names for plants. I studied Latin GCSE, and whereas I struggled with French, I loved Latin (“Caecilius in horto est” – what’s not to like?), especially when it came to plant names. It was useful and descriptive, and – I admit it – made me feel clever.

I know I am – how can I put this politely to myself? – an outlier. Many adults struggle with plants’ scientific names: they can be hard to pronounce and hard to read on the page; their meaning is obscure to the newcomer, and they sometimes make you sound like a bit of a prig if you bandy them around in the wrong company (guilty as charged).

My love of Latin – and what I suspect is the general population’s lukewarm feelings towards it – bubbled to the top of my consciousness recently when I received an email from a freelance writer, complaining about my insertion of common names into their copy. Their argument was that common names are just as hard to learn as Latin, except with Latin you can be sure everyone knows what you are talking about.

As I explained to them in my reply, it’s complicated; common names may be many and varied, across different geographical locations, (I always want to call the houseleek “welcome home husband how drunk you be” – look at a picture of a sempervivum in flower and use your imagination to figure out that one) but Latin names can change too as the botanists shuffle the cards in the deck that is the plant family in a neverending quest for accuracy: that’s why the delightfully named Dicentra spectabilis became the rather less elegant Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Some common names are simply the genus of the scientific name, which can be a help or a hindrance;* others can refer to multiple, completely different plants – bridal veil is a good example, as is daisy (which can refer to pretty much any member of the aster family, and beyond). And some common names can be downright misleading, such as February orchid as I wrote recently.

In Guardian Weekend, where our audience is a general one, we have to try to avoid alienating the absolute beginners who may flick to the gardening page while not talking down to the many expert gardeners who read the pages. My compromise is to use both in the body of an article: common name first (the most common common name, as decided by me, but usually guided by sources that include the RHS Plant Finder, BBC Gardeners World and Shoot Gardening), followed by the Latin in brackets – in the web version, the Latin will almost always link through to a useful website about the plant. In picture captions, I just use common names as there isn’t room for both, assuming that this can be cross referenced with the main copy.  This way around, the non-Latin fans can read the common name and let their eye skate over the Latin; the Latin fans can snort their derision at the common name, then move on to the real business of the genus and species.

The Latin, if you can bear to engage (and if you’re reading this blog you probably can), can help you learn about plants: citrodora means lemon-scented; punctatus means with spots. If it’s a language you’re still learning – or if you want a reference work – RHS Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison is very useful.


*Do I write Heuchera ‘Purple Palace’ (Heuchera micrantha ‘Purple Palace)?