May 6, 2008

Botanical Latin (Tomayto, tomahto)

Plant name pronunciation is often a hot topic for gardeners. I often get asked for the correct way to pronounce names like Clematis, Agastache, and so on.

Latin names, necessary for correct identification of plants and international discussion (Rosa muscosa means the same thing to a Swede and a Pole and a Japanese: a type of rose bearing moss on its buds, that is, fragrant hairs; but Moss Rose is also a common name for Portulaca grandiflora, a creeping annual more closely related to cacti.), can be confusing. If you've never studied another language than English (and it's too bad if you haven't, but that's another topic), it will be hard to decipher the meanings, and the pronunciations can be very difficult.

There are books and websites devoted to the latter, but it's my feeling that understanding the derivation (oh, muscosa refers to mossy, and grandiflora means large flower) is more important than being able to speak an artificial language.
Botanical Latin was started by a Swede in the 18th Century, Carl von Linne' aka Carolus Linnaeus (note that neither is a Swedish name. . .). His binomial system works very well & is used by far mostly in print. While it can be interesting to learn the exact pronunciations, it is rather difficult because it's

  • an artificial language (no native speakers)
  • based on two dead languages (no more ancient Romans, or ancient Greeks)
  • used by people around the globe with different pronunciations of words in common anyway. Aluminium/Aluminum, anyone? Never mind East coast pronunciations vs. deep South. . .
My feeling is, if we can understand each other, we're pronouncing it correctly enough.


Betsy said...

That Texas Sage I bought from you..what was the Latin name?? Anyway, I had it inside all winter and it keeps flowering like crazy and now I am putting it out for the hummingbirds and it is hummingbird heaven! The poor things don't have much to suck on yet! -Betsy

Judith said...

It's Salvia coccinea. I'm still getting frost at night, so mine aren't out yet.