(Most of those names made specific references to genitalia, and have since been changed, although testiculatus and vaginalus remain, as does syphiliticus.)
When I use Latin names for plants, I’m not trying to be pompous. It’s just that Latin is the language of plants, and the only way to know with certainty which plant is which is to use the Latin name. Common names can lead to confusion, because they vary from place to place. Rose of Sharon, for example, is used to describe both the ground cover Hypericum and the shrub Hibiscus.
And by the way, many of you use Latin names all the time, perhaps without even realizing it. When you say Hydrangea or Viburnum, you’re speaking Latin. Ditto Echinacea, Hyacinth, and Narcissus.
I’ll try to include both Latin and common names when discussing plants. And to help you become more comfortable with using Latin, I’ll present a Latin Lesson each month. That way you’ll begin to understand and appreciate how Latin enriches the language of plants, and learn how Latin gives clues as to how a plant looks or grows or behaves.
Remember, all plant names consist of a genus and a species. (Beyond that, there are subspecies, varieties, forms, and cultivars, but I’ll save that discussion for later.) And with few exceptions, the genus is capitalized and the species is lowercased. Both should be in italics, however to make things easier on this site all text will be in Roman.
Okay, let’s get started.
This is an easy one. It’s a Japanese maple. Acer is the Latin noun for maple. Palmatum refers to the shape of the leaf (like the palm of your hand).
Species names can be fairly easy to decipher and very descriptive. Here are some examples used to denote colors.
Now let’s have a look at origins.
Californicus: from California
Canadensis: from Canada
Pensylvanica: from Pennsylvania
Tibeticus: from Tibet (Free Tibet!)
Japonicus: from Japan
Virginiana: from Virginia
Simple, right? Well not so fast. It get’s tricky in a hurry.
Gratianopolitanus: from Grenoble, France
Hierochunticus: from Jericho
Noveboracum: from New York
Suecicus: from Sweden
But take heart. There are several species names for which the meaning is fairly easy to decipher.
Communis: common (may also be vulgaris)
Magnus: great or big
Zebrinus: zebra striped
And finally, there are names that suggest you may or may not want to grow the plant in question.
Augustissimus: most notable or majestic
Fimecarius: growing on dung
Inodorus: without scent
Odoratus: sweet smelling
And my personal favorite, onopordum, which literally means “ass fart.” It refers to the effect the Scotch thistle of the same name has on donkeys that eat it. My guess is their gas is anything but inodorus!