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Double dutch

Latin nomenclature can be useful

Root and Branch

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The other day at the garden centre, I found myself trailing two women of a certain age who were stocking up on winter bedding plants and spring colour. Into their shared trolley went trays of mauve wallflowers and frilly mixed pansies, tulip and daffodil bulbs by the bagful. Each new addition was named loudly in Latin by the one lady, and as the list of botanical binomials grew, so her friend’s shoulders drooped.

Nomenclature can be as off-putting as the idea that some of us are born green-fingered

To the novice gardener, nomenclature can be as off-putting as the idea that some of us are born green-fingered while others can’t be trusted with supermarket parsley. Coming face to face with multi-syllabled names in an ancient tongue is enough to make a shrinking Viola adunca out of anyone who wasn’t forced to conjugate Latin verbs at school.

Even the experts have begun admitting defeat. Since 2011, it has been possible to submit descriptions of newly-discovered plants in English as well as the traditional Latin. The move was aimed at speeding up the process of official recognition, lest plants die out while botanists were still wrestling with rusty declensions.

The longest Latin plant species name on record is Ornithogalumadseptentrionesvergentulum, a type of asparagus found in South Africa whose bulb, at less than 3cm tall, is among the smallest in the world. It has no common name, which is a shame because the common names of plants often encode history, usage and folklore.

Bury your nose in a posy of sneezewort, for instance, and you’ll likely discover why it was the key ingredient in sneezing powder. In name, it’s easy to confuse with sneezeweed, whose dried leaves were once used in snuff, but whose dainty, daisy-like flowers resemble feverfew, once used — not altogether effectively — to treat fevers.

Common names vary across eras and cultures. For instance, you probably know Chlorophytum comosum as the spider plant but in Mexico it’s the “bad mother plant”, named for the way it shoots out its plantlets. The Victorians knew it as the “ribbon plant” and other names includes the helicopter plant, the hen and chicken plant, and St Bernard’s Lily.

Even regional differences can be significant. Depending on whereabouts you are in Britain, sneezewort and feverfew are both known as bachelor’s buttons — as are tansy, corncockles, marsh marigolds and white campion.

While charming and sometimes enlightening, this local specificity is also confusing, and that’s where Latin comes in. Despite its elitist veneer, much sheened by the current cultural moment, Latin is a common language globally, and the very fact that it’s “dead” and therefore insulated from changes in usage makes it ideal for classification purposes.

There will be those who use scientific plant names to put others down but Latin continues to flourish in the garden because it’s very helpful

Nor are Latin plant names as dry as you might imagine. Carl Linnaeas, the eighteenth-century taxonomist who formalised the binomial system is known to have got back at a critic, Prussian botanist Johann Siegesbeck, by naming a new species after him.

Sigesbeckia orientalis is a weed, small and sparsely branched with meagre yellow flowers. More recently, a rare begonia native to Borneo that has near-black leaves and deep red blooms, was named Begonia darthvaderiana.

There will always be those who use scientific plant names to put others down but Latin continues to flourish in the garden because it’s very helpful. The first part of any binomial, the capitalised genus name, is generally a noun, while the species name that follows tends to be an adjective, denoting colour, size or behaviour.

Every genus also belongs to a larger group, a plant family, alerting gardeners to shared traits that might not be immediately apparent. Together with roses, for example, raspberries, apples and hawthorns all belong to the family Rosaceae.

I didn’t go to the kind of school that offered Latin. Instead, I dropped out of GSCE media studies (it was taught in a mobile classroom by a former busker of the year who kept a paper bag handy for dealing with his panic attacks) and used the time to attempt to teach myself. Now, as the list of gardening tasks shortens with the days, I’m going to try again.

While I promise not to flaunt botanical Latin unnecessarily at the garden centre, I am looking forward to showing the weeds I mean business and addressing them by their Latin names. Watch out Elymus repens and Helminthotheca echioides.

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