The Language of Plants – Part 1

There  be rumblins on social media, just for a change, and not just about European breakfast or why Orange is the latest must have colour in the USA, but why we still use Latin in horticulture. More to the point how it’s use is alienating new gardeners because they don’t understand it’s frightening, elitist, antiquated ways.

I absulutely understand the reluctance of some, but I still think there is a case to be made for keeping and championing the current system. So over a few posts, in my own way, I’m hopefully going to put forward my own case.

For or many years I ran a club in a primary school teaching all things horticultural. In fact ‘Horticulture’ was one of the first words they learnt, it comes from the Latin words ‘Hortus’ meaning garden and ‘Cultura’ meaning to cultivate, and I felt it summed up what the club was all about. During the term time they would learn about different types of plants and seeds, how to grow them, propagate and prune them. We looked at soil science, composting, crop rotation and pest control. And yes these under 11’s got to grips with Botanical Latin.

The thing about Botanical Latin as its often refered to is its not all Latin, there’s a pinch of Ancient Greek, a smattering of Persian and a hint of ego. So what are the objections to using It in Horticulture?

1) It’s frightening. Is it though, I find tall buildings, sitting next to learner drivers and snakes scary but I’ve never had a nightmare featuring Latin Plant names. What is scary I think relates to number 2).

2) It’s elitist. Nobody likes to be made to feel stupid and there is a tendency to be a bit sneery when it comes to pronunciation. If that’s you stop it, nobody likes a smart arse. For instance I’ve been told off for my pronunciation of Hemerocallis in the past, mind you I’ve been told off for lots of things. I’ve always known it as hemero-callis, but have been told it should be hem-er-okal-lis with all the syllables running into each other, like an Ibix skipping over boulders. So who’s right, to be honest I don’t know. However I do know that Hemerocallis comes from the Greek ‘hemeros’ meaning a day and ‘kallos’ meaning beauty and that Polly Maasz, grower of unusual and rather special Hemerocalis, doesn’t take issue with my pronunciation. Also I can’t help thinking a gardening code which means I can converse with any Hort, anywhere in the world, with words we both understand is far from elitist, it’s actually universally inclusive.

3) It’s antiquated. Absolutely right, but there is a good reason for combining ‘dead’ languages in science. Language is like a river running through time, it’s constantly picking up influences as it flows, evolving and leaving behind the evidence of ancients in literary ox-bow lakes. An ancient or dead language will never alter, it’s meaning will always stay the same, so *Systema Naturae written in 1735 could still be read and understood in 2735

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*Systema Natura written by Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carolus Linnaeus introduced Linnaean taxonomy (now known as binomial nomenclature) as a way of grouping living things in a consistent scientific way.

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “The Language of Plants – Part 1

  1. You make several great points here, first and foremost being don’t sneer at others for mispronunciation (I’d add: or for any other horticultural ‘failings’). My Latin teachers pronounced parts of the language quite differently so I presume we are not sure how it would have been pronounced originally. It seems to be a touch masochistic to want to learn a completely new system of names – what makes people think we’re going to agree on these or find them any easier to learn? I do love the folk names too, even though the same name can refer to other plants.

      1. If only sneering would work for that! A garden is one place we all ought to get along and be able to find peace – after all, the plants don’t care how their names are pronounced or whether they are pruned or not.

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