Last month we here at Hedgerow had some visitors from Prague, as in the Czech Republic. They were quite cosmopolitan and had way more languages at their disposal than I. I speak no Czech, nor much beyond high school French. And the smattering of Hebrew and Greek I have I learned decades ago and never helped me much in daily communication. Our visitors’ local relatives translated what needed to be translated, but we really didn’t get very far until the gardener in their group started rattling off the Latin names of the plants she was seeing here.
She first noticed my newly planted Gingko biloba and my head snapped around. Yes, that’s right. Was that a Pieris? No, azalea, Rhododendron. I pointed toward the two different types of Pieris I had in the woods. Is this an Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’? Yes, and that one is Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen.’ Ah. We had a common language after all.
I didn’t forget that I knew Latin, it’s just that my Latin is limited to names of plants and the first words of the psalms. But knowing the Latin, or scientific name of the plants got us going. And that is indeed the point of the scientific names: a way to communicate across cultures, where different plants (and animals) have one name, not just the local, idiosyncratic names (like bugbane or dog hobble, for instance) they also might have.
A little history here: What we call the Latin name is the system of binomial nomenclature that the Swedish scientist Carl Linneaus came up with. The first part is the genus to which a species belongs and the second is the species. So, for instance, what we know commonly as Paper Birch is Betula (birch) papyrifera. And then particular cultivars of each species get a single quote listing, such as Betula papyrifera ‘Renaissance Reflection.’ (Convention calls for the Latin to be italicized.)
I find I slip in and out of the common names and scientific names of plants for no good or consistent reason. I’ll talk about daisies rather than Leucanthemum at the same time I’ll point out Coreopsis as opposed to tickseed. And I love when some of the terms roll trippingly off the tongue when one finally learns them and figures out how to pronounce them, like Cimicifuga, which, it turns out, is now the-plant-formerly-known-as-Cimicifuga since genetic research has shown it belongs to the Actea genus and should be called that instead. Go figure.
As our visitors from Prague left, they were repeating the name of a tree they saw here for the first time: Metasequoia glyptostroboides, a.k.a. Dawn Redwood. Very satisfying.
— Anne Cox (Cox is co-owner of Hedgerow in Martinsville.)