If you’re like us, your Latin is strictly of the porcine variety. Most gardeners are too busy weeding or planting to practice verb tenses and declensions, so it’s easy to skip past those long lines of Latinate lingo you find on the back of plant labels. But Latin names can be very useful once you know how to use them.
Latin Names are Precise
Most of us are much more comfortable with the common names for plants. Let’s face it, Myosotis sylvatica is much harder to ‘not forget’ than ‘Forget-Me-Nots.’ Usually this works out fine, but sometimes common names are just vague enough to cause problems. For example, when someone says “phlox” are you picturing an annual, perennial or a groundcover? All three are correct. And don’t even get us started on all the different things called ‘Dusty miller’ or ‘Dianthus.’ When you need to get specific, Scientific names are the most accurate way of naming plants.
Latin Names are Informative
Breaking down scientific names can also tell you a little something about the plant. The first part of a scientific name is the genus name. A genus is a large class or family of plants. Some plants go by their genus name, for example Hydrangeas all belong to the Hydrangea genus. The second word in the name is the species name. The species name is usually a descriptive word that tells you something unique about the plant. Many descriptive species names are used over and over when naming plants. Being familiar with a few can give a lot of information about the plant just by glancing at the name. Listed below are some of the most common.
So, next time you see a long italicized name, take a close look and see if you can decipher its meaning.