Learn the Language of Plants – Latin

A few centuries ago, Europeans started exploring this ball of earth, and it became a much smaller place. All of a sudden the common names for plants began to get really really confusing. One scientists came up with a solution, at least for his corner of the world, he named the plants in Latin. I mentioned him last week, Linneaus, because he started a garden journal when he was only seven years old.

Linneaus’s idea caught fire, and scientists all over Europe and Russia, and even in the New World started started using this Latin naming system because it was in a neutral language that “everybody” could understand. Plants, animals, and fungi (thought to be a kind of plant) were all given Latin names.


Why Bother with Latin?

Now, why should you care? Example. Recently, in a gardening talk, a member of the audience had a question about their “jasmine bush.” Hmmm. There are seven different species (in three different plant families) that are commonly referred to as jasmine, but most are vines, not bushes. I asked the person to come up after the talk. Then I got to see a picture of this so-called “jasmine.” It was not jasmine at all! It was a gardenia. This plant was “Gardenia jasminoides” with a common name of “Cape jasmine,” but not a true jasmine. Very different care requirements!

common-soule-garden common-soule-garden common-soule-garden





If we had the scientific name of the plant (which should be on the plant label when you buy it), we could have gotten straight to the meat of the matter. Keep those plant labels! Toss them in a file folder or shoe box, and dig them out next time you have questions. Take a photo of them next to the plant.

Latin is Easy

Folks seem to think that Latin-based scientific names are hard to learn and unpronounceable. Not so! You already know any number of scientific names for plants. Many “girl” names are the same as scientific plant names! (And their parents weren’t hippies!) Names like Iris, Camellia, and Erica. More scientific names you already know? From our own back yards we can start with agave, aloe, acacia, and asters.


Then I got to pondering, and with my writing music playing in the background, I came up with a list. This list was compiled in the length of time it took B. B. King to play a twelve-bar blues number. Putting it in alphabetical order took a tad longer.

Plants with the Same Name in English and Latin

Amaranth, amaryllis, asparagus, begonia, bougainvillea, caladium, chrysanthemum, citrus, clematis, coleus, cyclamen, dahlia, dalea, delphinium, digitalis, ephedra, eucalyptus, fatsia, forsythia, fuchsia, gardenia, geranium, gladiolus, hibiscus, hosta, hoya, hydrangea, impatiens, jacarunda, kalanchoe, lantana, magnolia, narcissus, nasturtium, oleander, penstemon, peperomia, petunia, pilea, pittosporum, pyracantha, rhododendron, sanseveria, tilia, tulbaghia, valerian, verbena, vinca, violet, welwitschia, wisteria, xylosma, yucca, and zinnia.


Why You Should Care

How about the weeping and willow acacias? Mainly from Australia, they entered the nursery trade in the U.S. in different states. Three different species are now sold as “weeping willow” acacia. One species has shallow roots that will buckle patios and knock down walls, the other two are nicely deep-rooted. To add to the confusion, there are an three more species of acacia with a weeping form. Let’s get the right scientific name when we buy one for our patio!

Get the scientific name right so you don’t end up with an unwanted plant.

Botanical Latin is easy, as I mentioned earlier. As well as already knowing many of the names of plants, you already know many of the root words too. Take the example “pendulous.” Something hanging down, right? Like a pendulum. Make my weeping acacia that won’t rip up the patio the “Acacia pendula.”


Let me quote the author of the “bible” of botanical Latin, a book called “Botanical Latin,” written by William T. Stern and found on every plant taxonomists bookshelf. …”the scientific names of plants often occur in speech. How they are pronounced really matters little provided they sound pleasant and are understood by all concerned.”


Remember the song – “You say to-mah-toe and I say toe-may-toe.” I say pea-can, you say pe-cahhn, and some of us say Carya illinoiensis. Only a boor corrects the pronunciation of another (unless it’s the pronunciation of your own personal name). (Soule – rhymes with soul.)

The Confusing Part

Now we get to the part that confuses some people. A scientific name is actually two names, a binomial. Take it slow and it makes sense. For example, in our home Kinja Soule is a “Felis catus,” while Jacqueline Soule is a “Homo sapiens.” Which one is “master” is subject to debate.


Latin names are binomials. They have have two parts, just like a bi-cycle has two wheels. One name (genus) is there to recognize the group of closely allied kin, and the second name (species) to recognize how they differ from those kin. We call the genus and species together the name of the species.

Kinja the Felis domesticus has a cousin running in the forests of Europe, Felis silvestris. You may recognize this word because Silvaculture is care of forests, and thus the name sometimes tells us a great deal about the species. Both types of cats are in the same genus because their genes could cross and have viable and fertile offspring. Or they could if Kinja wasn’t neutered.


A Tiny Bit More on Binomials

The specific name “pendula” from our acacia example above can’t stand alone. We also have to use the genus name, “Acacia” when we talk about the deep rooted weeping acacia with the silvery blue leaves that tops out at around twenty feet, Acacia pendula.

In closing, plant taxonomy, the proper names of plants, need not be taxing. It can even make your life easier! It can help you get the right plant for the right place, and then care for that plant in the right way.


If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my free lectures that I mention on my Facebook page. I promise – I use minimal Latin names! 😉

After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there I will get a few pennies.

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