Thursday, September 18, 2014

3 Reasons To Love Latin Plant Names

Cue Tina Turner...

What's Latin got to do, got to do with it? 

What's Latin, but a sweet old fashioned language? 

What's in a name? Quite a lot, as it happens, in the world of horticulture. Consider the flap over plants in Episode 3 of Outlander. Claire correctly explains that Convallaria majalis, commonly known as lily of the valley, is often mistaken for wood garlic, Allium ursinum. However, the plant she identifies as lily of the valley is not Convallaria - a fact pointed out by many viewers - it doesn't even look similar. Because the script was so clear, specifying Convallaria, one wonders how such a mistake could have happened.

Lily of the Valley shrub - Pieris japonica 
My guess, and this is only a guess, is that the person sent to find the plant for filming the episode was simply told to find a "lily of the valley." That seems innocent enough, especially to people who don't have much experience, but if you want a specific plant, the only way to assure accuracy is to use its Latin, scientific name. Using the common name, lily of the valley, can get you into trouble because more than one plant may have that name. Possibilities in this case include: false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatum), which seems most likely the plant used for the show, or lily of the valley shrub (Pieris sp.

I can sympathize with the producers of the show, because of my experience as a landscape designer. Designers and architects specify plants for landscape plans using Latin names because we are very particular about form, size and color. We know precisely which plants will deliver those characteristics, and we strive to be as clear as possible with our instructions. But nearly all of us have had the experience of visiting a job site and being horrified to find that an installer has taken it upon himself to make some substitutions. If I have specified a dwarf conifer that will fit nicely into a small, urban garden, I am not happy to see that one of its relatives, a forest tree that wants to be 150 feet tall, has taken its place. 

That said, if you are not in the horticulture business, do Latin plant names really matter? If you are a gardener or have any interest in plants, I believe so. Here are three reasons:

1) Latin botanical names are names without borders. No matter what country you live in and no matter what language you speak, botanists, biologists, nursery professionals, landscape designers, architects and savvy gardeners all use the same Latin, scientific name for the same plant.

2) Using Latin names eliminates confusion. Plants have common names, but these names vary from place to place. You can't assume that the common name that you have for a plant means the same thing to other people.

Is this a mango? 
One of my hort instructors told us a story about ordering a pizza while visiting in Ohio. Looking through the list of toppings, he was surprised to see that mangoes were offered. Thinking that an orange, tropical fruit was rather an exotic choice, particularly in the midwestern US, he had to ask. Turns out, "mango" is what the locals there call green bell pepper. It's one more example of how common names can cause misunderstandings.

3) Finally, when ye have a wee bit o' the Latin, the names will tell ye more about the wee plants, ye ken?  Here's brief list of Latin species names to give you an idea.

alba - white
aurea - yellow or gold (Au being the chemical symbol for gold)
baccata - having berry-like fruit
callosum - thickened, calloused
compacta - small, compact
dendatum - toothed
fasciata - bound together
ilicifolia - having leaves like holly
indica - native to India
lacteum - milky
macrophylla - having big leaves
nana - small
nigra - black
palustris - loves marshes
pendula - pendulous, weeping
purpurea -  purple
rubra - red
spinosa - spiny or thorny
sylvatica - of the forest
tortuosum -  twisted, contorted
umbraculifera - umbrella-like
variegata - variegated, usually refers to foliage with more than one color
viridis - green
vulgaris - common

Want to know more? Have a name you want to look up? Go to the Botanical Dictionary at Dave's Garden.

Related Post:

Right Plants, Wrong Season?


  1. Thanks for an informative post.

  2. I was just watching episode 3 of Outlander, and immediately shouted at the screen "That is neither lily of the valley nor wood garlic! It's obviously a shrub, and the leaves are all wrong!" Good to see others noticed the error, unfortunately M D Moore makes a big deal in the extra info bits about using the precise plants and having someone whose job it is to find and use the correct plants with such a large gaffe.

    1. I imagine you saw my other post about Right Plants, Wrong Season, too. I really hope there won't be more of these errors in the future. This series has been done so well otherwise.


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