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The joy of the Latin name

Amateur gardeners often struggle with the Latin names that define their plants. There are frequent pleas for common rather than Latin names. The common names provide rich material for native and useful plants and these often attract a wealth of picturesque names. These differ in various parts of the country. How picturesque is ‘piss-a-bed’ and ‘Irish daisy’ or ‘clock flower’ (alternate names for the common dandelion). Other names may reflect their herbal properties, though they never seem to define the acute evacuation that’s almost de rigueur as a component of the cure.

The application of the common name starts to fall down with foreign introductions, especially plants that come from countries that have been colonized. The colonists often mapped the new world in terms of the old, naming plants after vaguely similar English plants. Thus you get ‘Bluebells’ that refer to different annual and perennial plants rather than the bulb of English woodlands. Other plants come ‘unlabelled’ as it were and just occasionally bear the names given by the native inhabitants of those territories, and these often appear uneasy in print.

In order to provide the sought after common names, translations of Latin names are often made that reflect the quality of the plant that botanists consider important. Sometimes they are helpful in featuring recognisable features, locations in which they grow, plants that they resemble, etc. At other times one struggles to interpret terms such as ‘mucilaginous sap’ or ‘lacking bracteoles’ into something readily meaningful.

Overall, it is better to simply get to grips with universal and generally uncontroversial Latin names and to stop expecting everything to be handed to you on a digested plate.

I must admit, at this point that I often forget the names of plants in my own garden and mentally refer to them as ‘the one with the curious flowers that needs to be by a path to be noticed’ and ‘the one that gets leggy if you don’t keep pruning it’. There are also many occasions when, returning from a garden visit, I find I have carefully transcribed Crocus ‘Snow Bunting’ into my notebook instead of the name of the tree it appeared under several months ago.

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Crocus ‘Snow bunting’ (misapplied)

Piss-a-bed and friend

Piss-a-bed and friend

Susan A. Tindall

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