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A beginner's guide to understanding Botanical Latin - Colours

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Botanical Latin, which incidentally often includes elements of Ancient Greek as well, is one of the more daunting elements of horticulture for most learning about the subject. At times seemingly impenetrable, some people find it an intimidating prospect to learn. While learning plant names definitely becomes easier with practise and regular exposure, understanding what the Latin means often gives you an advantage in understanding what a plant looks like, its qualities and even colours.

In this article, I want to look at Colour in Botanical Latin, but first I think it makes sense to explain just why we use Latin to name our plants.

Language is fluid; it changes over time and with regional users. We can easily see this when we look at the language one generation uses when compared with those of previous generations then those that follow. They all have unique words that mean less to the generations that preceded them and similarly will to those who follow them and yet the word meaning may continue unchanged over these generations.

Regionally and locally within a country colloquial words may be used that don’t appear elsewhere. These may also change over time.

Finally, the language we speak within individual countries will likely be different and may be difficult to translate and interpret.

All of this means that plant names, when spoken in a native tongue, in a local dialect, using colloquial names, by different generations, could mean that hundreds of people could be talking about the same plant with no person able to understand any others.

Latin and Ancient Greek are Dead Languages: they don’t change and won’t change. Any person, from any country, who normally speaks any language and uses their own local colloquial terms, can learn and use Botanical Latin internationally with any other person. This is fantastic tool.

Alexander Roslin: Portrait of Carl Linnaeus, 1775
Alexander Roslin: Portrait of Carl Linnaeus, 1775

We have Swedish Botanist Carl Linnaeus to thank for formalising the system of Binomial Nomenclature in the 1700's using Botanical Latin as the defining tool to name plants, animals and indeed all living things. Binomial Nomenclature translates to Two-Term/Name Naming System indicating the need for a Genus and species.

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Genus is the group within which several genetically similar, but still different species will sit. For example, Humans are in the genus Homo along with some of our now extinct family tree including Neanderthals and others. Neanderthals are technically called Homo neanderthalensis (although they are possibly a subspecies of modern humans), while we modern human are called Homo sapiens, which means Wise Man (Wise = sapiens, Man = Homo). Genus are always written starting with a capital letter.

Species can be wildly different from one another, though they will share a genetic relationship having evolved from the same ancestors. Species names often describe the qualities of a plant, like flower colour, scent, size or plant or leaf, the habit in which it lives, etc, etc. Species are always written in lower case.

When printed, Botanical Latin is written in italics, with the exclusion of any Cultivar Names (they are for another article, but essentially consider cultivars to be plants that have been bred and do not occur naturally in the wild). For example Hebe pinguifolia all in italics, but the cultivated form of 'Pagei' is in quotations and not written in italics. Hebe pinguifolia 'Pagei'. All cultivar/variety names will be in quotation marks and should have capitals beginning each word (the capitalisation doesn't ways happen, but will apply 99% of the time).

Hebe pinguifolia 'Pagei' LN

This simple (at times) process of naming everything living using a universally followed system is a tremendous boon for the horticulturist. An international language that everyone can learn and use freely without it changing anywhere, ensuring that very specific plants are being described correctly by everyone.

Put simply, Botanical Latin is the only truly perfect solution for naming plants and if you work in horticulture in any form, you need to learn it. Keen gardeners may not need to know it, but they hopefully want to learn it and are definitely at an advantage if they do understand at least some of it.