Friday, June 12, 2009

What's in a name? Dan Heims—Terra Nova Nurseries—explains

If you didn't speak "dead" Latin two hundred years ago, you couldn't describe a plant. We can thank our 300-year-old friend Linnaeus for that. Give the man credit: he brought order to the plant, animal, and microbial world by specifically choosing a dead language. Why?

At the time, Latin was THE international language, taught in all universities. If Linnaeus had described plants in Swedish, it would have stopped at the border. Thanks to the Roman Empire, Latin spread all over the world and was used well into the mid 1800's.

So why use it today? Simple. It still puts plants in order. Ask me to find you a "Creeping Charlie" and I could show you seven different plants with this same "common" name. Go to Russia or Japan and ask for a Solenostemon scutellarioides and they will know EXACTLY what plant you are asking for. Latin is still universal in the plant kingdom.

I have read 10,000-word diatribes for or against the use of Latin plant names. It can be confusing. Sometimes, Greek roots and species named by their locales (like Begonia xishuiensis) add to the confusion, but don't let it get to you.

Latin names are all about descriptions. We know Acer – it's a maple. Add rubrum, it’s a red maple. Add macrophyllum – it’s a big (macro) leafed (phyllum) maple. As I have very limited space, I would like to point out how different a landscape design would look if creeping charlies and green maples were specified. Who knows what plants you would get? Latin – live with it. It works!

Omnia extares! (let it all hang out!)


PS: Next month I'll discuss who is in a name.

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