Latin’s alive and well in the garden |

Latin’s alive and well in the garden

For The Associated Press
Dean Fosdick/Associated Press A pelargonium in a yard in New Market, Va. Sometimes, you can't identify a flower without a program. Take the case of this "garden geranium," one of the most common potted plants in America with over 200 varieties. It's actually a pelargonium and calling it by its Latin name (Pelargonium x hortorum) will help avoid any cases of mistaken identity.

Anyone buying into that line about Latin being a dead language hasn’t spent much time around a veteran gardener.

Horticultural Latin is the consistent stuff of documentation, the universal language of the sciences and the root of many botanical names.

Helping keep it alive and working is a Latin-based classification system devised two and a half centuries ago to unify plant names and in many cases, shorten them. Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist and physician, based his landmark work on observable and shared physical characteristics.

The two-part name, or binomial, consists of the “Genus,” a capitalized noun describing a given plant group. The second portion is the “specific epithet” or a lower case adjective isolating a member of that group.

Combined, they identify a particular plant, animal or mineral.

A familiar example might be Acer rubrum, or the scientific name for a red maple tree. Taking it a step further to Acer rubrum “October Brilliance” would provide the trademark name for a particularly brilliant red maple no matter what it is commonly called (Soft, Scarlet or Swamp maple) within its range from Ontario to Florida.

“Common plant names are a rich trove of imagery, and I would never suggest that we stop talking about pigweed, pussytoes, or love-in-a-puff,” writes landscape designer Barbara Damrosch in an introduction to “Gardener’s Latin” by Bill Neal. “But common names can be troublesome when it is time to go shopping.”

As an example, Damrosch lists the “rose of Sharon,” a name commonly applied to two plants, one a groundcover and the other a shrub. In this case, a rose is not a rose is not a rose.

The Linnaeus plant identification system might be considered more hindrance than help in certain Latin-lean locales. But having a single, agreed-upon naming system is becoming even more of a necessity given an increasingly global economy and the plant-buying utility of the Internet.

Botanical names need not be such an intimidating mouthful, especially if people new to the language take things slowly and think about them a bit, said Jack McKinnon, a garden coach from the San Francisco Bay area.

“Oftentimes, the Latin name is more descriptive than the common name,” McKinnon said in a telephone interview. “When I take a group of kids out on a garden tour, I’ll usually show them something like a Magnolia tree and tell them it’s known by its shiny leaves and big flowers.

“I’ll go on to tell them that the blooms on particular trees grow as big as their heads and that the trees are properly called Magnolia grandiflora. Then they’ve got it. And they’ve also got the value of Latin. It just makes sense.”

If ensuring you buy the right plant isn’t enough to send you scurrying for a Latin primer, then consider this: Knowing some botanical Latin could be a lifesaver – or at least a pain reducer.

Take the case of Esther Miller, a master gardener who lives on a farmstead near Woodstock, Va.

She spent some uncomfortable days several years ago recovering from a severe skin ailment caused by brushing against the resinous sap from a thick-stemmed succulent belonging to the family Euphorbia – a varied and extensive plant group that includes such holiday favorites as poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) and crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii).

Miller spent three hours in a hospital emergency room where she was treated with anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, which reduced the swelling and relieved most of the pain.

The redness on her skin also went away, although it took more than two weeks for all the blisters and crusty patches to disappear.

The moral of the story? “Don’t be afraid of (the) Latin names of plants,” Miller said. “The only way the doctors knew what to do for me was to Google the name of the plant and see what it could do to me, then research the proper treatment.”