Last December I received a most curious and exciting gift from the executive editor and publisher of this newspaper. A book titled, The Gardener’s Botanical, An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names, this horticultural gem has more than 5,000 entries and 350 botanical illustrations. Serious gardeners know the names of their plants, usually the Latin ones, as it is crucial for understanding the plants care and “unlocking” other useful information. The decision to use Latin nomenclature “stems from its historical use by scholars.” And while these somewhat impossible “antediluvian epithets” have many asking “why” consider this; knowing your botanical names bridges the gap for those who have different “native tongues.” That is to say, people from different countries can communicate effectively simply by knowing their Latin names. After all, not everyone may be familiar with the common names highland Dog-hobble, Fetterbush or switch ivy, but Leucothoe fontanesiana is a name most plant professionals have heard of. Common names may vary region to region, whereas Latin is absolute. Additionally, Latin names can reveal fascinating stories behind a plants given name. And it is here that I became mesmerized by my gift as many names and stories behind some of my favorite plants came alive. Noblemen, Prime Minister’s, botanists, naturalists, surgeons, anthropologists, chemists, even the daughter of a Czar have all been credited in naming some of the world’s great plants.
Carl Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus, has often been called the Father of Taxonomy. Credited for naming, ranking and classifying organisms, his arrangements, albeit modified some, are still in use today. Attending the University of Uppsala in Sweden, Linnaeus’ training in botany and medicine went “hand in hand.” In fact, doctors in their day had to “prepare and prescribe drugs derived from medicinal pants.” Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician, has his favorite flower named after him. Linnaea borealis is a species of flowering plant in the honeysuckle family. Commonly known as twinflower, this evergreen, groundcover has small, dainty, bell-like flowers that are fragrant. Previously named by the Dutch botanist, Jan Frederik Gronovius, the genus name was later given to Linnaeus as this was his favorite plant.
The next plant I researched, in my encyclopedic read, was Monkey Puzzle, Araucaria araucana. Named for the Mapuche, an indigenous people of Chile and the Araucanía region of Chile, this razor-sharp, coniferous evergreen is most certainly deer resistant. Araucaria’s common name is surmised because monkey’s are unable to harvest the fruit it bears, as its rope-like branchlets and triangular foliage is just too treacherous. Native to woodland volcanic slopes, this Chilean conifer has been said to only “belong in a horror movie.” Well, maybe not horror movies, but it was referenced in Emily Brontë’s classic novel, Wuthering Heights.
Princess/Empress tree, Paulownia tomentosa, is a gorgeous shade tree with showy, fragrant, foxglove-like flowers. The genus name honors Anna Pavlovna, the daughter of Czar Paul I of Russia. Funnel-shaped, pinkish-lavender flowers are said to be edible and their fragrance likened to that of vanilla.
Plant lovers have much to thank Carl Linnaeus for. Founder of the modern system of binomial nomenclature, his efforts were quantum. Linnaeus may have misread the name Gink(y)o for Gink(g)o, however, this 200-million-year old living fossil, a deciduous conifer, remains my favorite tree. I truly believe in the importance of knowing your plant material and their respective names. My Christmas gift continues to hold my attention and the stories seem endless. Finally, I leave you with this… years ago a gentleman, speaking only Russian, came into our garden center. While I don’t speak Russian and he didn’t speak English, I was able to decipher his question simply by two words… Torreya nucifera. I have Dr. John Torrey, American botanist, chemist and physician to thank for that retail sale. Japanese Nutmeg-yew the gentleman asked for had both of us very excited. One, that we could offer the plant requested and two, that we were able to communicate succinctly, despite our Mother tongues.