The Marylebone Gardener ponders…
Like many gardeners I am frequently irritated and bamboozled by plants’ botanical Latin names. Often difficult to pronounce and a nightmare for those of us with poor spelling skills, eg: Zygopyllum prismatothecum… Why are we stuck with botanical Latin? The simple answer is that the Latin botanical name is universally recognised and identifiable. Sticking to common names can cause confusion. Recently a library colleague asked me what a certain purple flowering plant was in the staff garden. On replying, “It’s a (hardy) geranium”, they said, “I thought they had red flowers” – referring to the pelargonium family.
Likewise there is common confusion over the name bluebell. Referred to in the Scottish folk song:
“Oh where, tell me where
Did your Highland laddie dwell?
He dwelt in bonnie Scotland,
Where blooms the sweet blue bell”
This refers to Campanula rotundifolia, commonly known as the harebell, rather than the ‘English’ bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta.
Here the plant’s common name is restricted to two, but other plants within Britain have many more local names. Sixteen names have been recorded for the dandelion, including lion’s-tooth, puffball, fairy clock and pissabed! When you consider that many plants can be found growing across continents, the use of local names just doesn’t work for identification purposes. It’s fascinating from a cultural / historical viewpoint though, and Richard Mabey’s extraordinary Flora Britannica is a mine of curious information.
Latin names are often long due to the fact that they are frequently portmanteau words made up of descriptive elements within it. So returning to the hare bell the Latin name Campanula = bell-like (flower) and rotundifolia = round foliage. These descriptive elements occur in many botanical names and so are useful clues to the plant’s appearance such as colour, leaf shape or growing habit.
You may be aware of the name Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) the Swedish botanist who brought order to previous attempts to classify plants by dividing 7,700 species into 109 genera each one having an unique botanical name. In spite of being born and dying in Sweden, Linnaeus spent a significant part of his active life in England so warrants an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His entry can be consulted either online using the Westminster Libraries 24/7 electronic resources or in the printed version held within the Marylebone Information Service or Westminster Reference Library collections.
An entertaining history of Linnaeus and his predecessors attempts to bring order to the plant world can be read in Anna Pavord’s book The Naming of Names. Westminster Libraries also stock several lending and reference guides to botanical Latin to aid the puzzled gardener:
We also stock Geoffrey Grigson’s Dictionary of English Plant Names, and Some Products of Plants. Please note that this reference book is currently held in a library store so it must be ordered in advance from Marylebone Information Service – but we’d be very pleased to bring it out into the light of day!