Gardeners’ love of Latin

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At school, there were five of us in my Latin class, and just one of me learning Greek. These languages, squawked progressive beaks, were not only dead, but buried. A few decades later, university Classics departments are oversubscribed, BBCs 2 and 4 throw regular toga parties and the Mayor of London gains nothing but respect for stating that Ancient Rome has much to teach us.

There’s also a role in this re-Renaissance for the millions of Britons for whom Latin is effectively a second language-gardeners. Many of the plant names that we speak were spoken by the Romans. In them, we inherit an extraordinary legacy of myth, poetry and learning that reaches back to Ancient Greece and beyond. Transformed into plants, the cast of Ovid’s Metamorphoses lives on in our gardens as Adonis, Hyacinthus, Narcissus, Daphne and Cup-ressus. Pliny’s scientific curiosity was such that he died trying to get a closer look at Vesuvius in ad79, but not before memorialising terms such as candidus (shining white), pinnatus (feather-shaped) and volubilis (twining), a descriptive vocabulary that gardeners continue to use daily.

Botanical Latin still stands on this marble foundation, but it has mutated, hybridised and modernised. It has adopted words from other languages as far-flung as Japanese (Kirengeshoma), Malayalam (Wattakaka), Chinook (Camassia), Carib (Yucca) and Mapuche (Puya). It has rewritten Metamorphoses thousands of times by transfiguring new heroes and heroines. The persons so honoured are often plant professionals. Linnaea, for example, commemorates Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish botanist who formalised the convention of using binomials, names composed of two parts, genus and species, such as Linnaea borealis. But there are also figures who might have moved Ovid, or even Homer, to verse, from Lapageria, named for Joséphine Bonaparte, to her former husband’s nemesis Wellingtonia.

In the garden here, the most tolerable of our weeds is Circaea lutetiana. Sibilant, tongue-tripping, pure plant porn, its name translated says ‘Circe the enchantress from Paris’. Its scientific value as a binomial, however, doesn’t reside in what it means, or in its meaning anything at all, but in its belonging uniquely to this species. That’s the primary aim in using botanical Latin: it gets us around the fact that a vernacular name such as ‘bluebell’ is used for two wholly unrelated genera and several species in the UK alone, before we even think about the different bluebells in America, Africa and Australia.

So, whine the philistines and killjoys, if a scientific name’s job is to be a unique identifier, why not use a purpose-built vernacular, a string of numbers or a barcode? Why torture us with this dead language? But just imagine it-imagine sending Ovid back into exile after so many centuries, silencing Joséphine’s beautiful bellflower, swapping Circe my Parisian enchantress for some Esperanto moniker.

With Classics in the air and bookish autumn upon us, allow me to commend Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners, an authoritative but browsable guide from the great master of botanical Latin, William T. Stearn. There’s also a new book, RHS Latin for Gardeners, by Lorraine Harrison (Mitchell Beazley, £12.99). It’s prettier than Stearn’s, but I like it far less, and least of all its insistence on giving pronunciations. Some of these are simply wrong-‘kir-KIN-ah-lis’ for cir-cinalis (in my years of investigating Cycas circinalis, I only ever heard it spoken ‘sursinalis’ by botanists, Prof Stearn included) and ‘suh-NOR-um’ for cneorum (it’s ‘neeorum’, from Greek kneoron; like the ‘p’ in pterodactyl, the ‘c’ is silent).

Such rare exceptions aside, there’s no more consensus about the pronunciation of botanical Latin than there is about its Classical counterpart. I have just two guiding principles. Relax and be yourself, whether you’re saying the shortest botanical name (Aa, a genus of Andean orchids) or the longest (× Crepidi-astrixeris denticulatoplatyphylla, a fetching little Far Eastern daisy). And relish it. Far from dead, the mother tongue of the living world is alive and evolving; it’s nothing less than the language of life.

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