Latin names at times do give clues

A while back when a fellow gardener asked me the significance of Latin names of plants, I found myself fumbling for an answer despite the fact that botany was my major in graduate school; evidently, associating plants with Latin names has become somewhat of a second nature for me, and therefore I cannot easily relate classroom knowledge to everyday gardening where common names are easy to work as well as communicate with. Nevertheless, though at times long and difficult to pronounce, Latin names provide the plant world with a universal identification system, a language not lost in translation.

Whereas Latin names do not always indicate the characteristics of a plant, some distinctly do, making plant nomenclature interesting, sometimes even amusing. For example, the desert rose, Adenium obesum, a curious plant that is grown as a houseplant here, tends to be –  as the name suggests –  on the chubby side because the stem is swollen at the base. Similarly, plants having the word “alba” in the name bear white flowers, “roseus” implying rosy pink flowers. And frankly, I try to stay away from a plant that has “foetidus” in the name which highlights the plant’s attributes: stinky flowers or the foliage, or both. Speaking of attributes, since the highly fragrant flowers of the night-blooming jasmine open only at night, the plant dare not go by any name other than Cestrum nocturum, assuring the nocturnal habit of the plant!

Looking for a plant with edible fruits? Then Passiflora edulis is the one for you. On the other hand, some of us might not like to be around Dracunculus vulgaris, commonly called dragon arum, as the flower is rather indecent-looking. Interestingly, some names like Camellia japonica obviously indicate the country of origin of the plant, which in this case is indeed Japan in addition to China and Korea.

Latin names, therefore, not only distinguish one plant from another, but sometimes give clues of  the distinctive features as well; so, if looking for the winter Daphne, an evergreen shrub prized for its intensely scented flowers, but want to be sure, then look for the one called Daphne odora!

In Gita’s last column, the featured photo was misidentified.  The correct name of the plant should have read Grape Hyacinth. Our apologies to Gita and our readers of Gardening with Gita.


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