Amo, amas, amat

If this has no resonance for you then you obviously didn’t study Latin at school.

This is a shame because in the world of gardens and plants that really does put you at a disadvantage. But rest assured all is not lost!

I met someone last year who tried to tell me that gardeners deliberately use Latin to show off, to mystify and exclude outsiders. Paronoid or what? They were also wrong, because ‘botanical Latin’ is the official language of plants. Wrong, because this statement abused the character of most gardeners. And wrong, since all it revealed was this person’s fundamental fear of what they didn’t know and couldn’t be bothered to learn. There is such a thing as self help.

Plants have an official language, because the study of them is a science. In order that they can be found, identified, classified and studied a common, mutually agreed identification system is needed, both nationally and internationally.

Even at the more prosaic level of commercial and amateur gardening and garden visiting ‘botanical Latin’ is still a simplifying force for the good in its sheer clarity and  universality. How so?

Common names are repetitive. There are for example 2 completely different plants called ‘Black-Eyed Susan’, 2 ‘Kaffir Lilies’, 2 ‘Bluebells’, 2 ‘Blueberries’ and so on. Likewise one plant type can have more than one common name, even nationally let alone internationally. Herbs for obvious reasons, given their long medicinal and culinary uses, are good examples. Look through Maud Grieve’s  herbal and it is easy to find 6 or 7 different names per plant.

When I was researching and setting up an educational herb garden, where all the plants were selected and placed according to the body system they treated, I located one herb with 22 common names. I would have had difficulty deciding which name to order it under unless I used the Latin name! Many plants conversely have no common name at all. So what do you do then?

Whether I have convinced you or not, and whether you like it or not, botanical Latin is here to stay. I see students on twitter talking about learning it And that is good. It is simply a case of effort and inquiry. Like most things you get back what you put in! Here are some simple tools to help you:

Plant Names Simplified by Johnson and Smith,

The RHS 4 volume Dictionary of Gardening,

and Botanical Latin by William Stearn are all books which helped me. The RHS Plant Finder is invaluable for up to date nomenclature. There will be other books and lots of other web resources.

The key to learning the name is understanding the name.

Have fun!

Robert

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