I don’t speak Latin and the prospect of learning isn’t exactly on my to do list. But, a little bit of Latin can go a long way to help understand plants, especially as you are searching for the perfect addition to your garden.

The modern naming of plants is based on a system developed by Carl Linnaeus in 1773. His system used latin and botanical terminology and the language persists today. It can be overwhelming to look at an extensive name rambling on and right off the end of those little plant tags. But, once you get a basic understanding you can appreciate all those flowery descriptives for the great information they convey and the beauty of how plants have been organized into recognizable groups.

This amazing system names everything with a series of identifiers, classifications and descriptions. For the purposes of plant shopping you will primarily be focused on the genus, species and a few subcategories. You will be able to get an idea of where the plants natural habitat is, what the growing habit is like, what color its flowers will be and so on.

Genus – A genus is the larger umbrella grouping of plants with similar characteristics, think “generic”. These plants will usually have a common ancestor. Genera (plural) will be made up of many species of individual plants that are closely related but distinct from other plants within the genera. An example is Acer which is the genus for all maple trees. The genus name will appear with a capital on a plant tag.

Species – The species designation usually covers plants that are similar enough to interbreed and produce fertile offspring. The species name is a descriptor of the plants character and will appear in italic. Some examples are: Color – purpurea for purple. Shape – contorta for contorted. Origin or habitat – chinensis for of China. Taxonomists love to name plants for whoever “discovered” them. Meaning the first botanist who came across the plant so lewisii means: first collected by Meriwether Lewis.

There are several ways to further describe the many different plants and how they fit into their family tree:

Variety – When a plant is found in the wild with a small variation on the norm it is designated as a variety – pinus radiata var. binata.

Subspecies – A subspecies is a more significant natural mutation – A negundo subsp. mexicanum

Cultivar – Variations that are produced by breeders selection of naturally occurring variations are called cultivars – H.niger ‘Potters Wheel’. These names will appear in apostrophe.

Hybrid – A hybrid is created when two species are bred – Helleborus x nigercors, cross between H.niger and H.argutifolius.

Here is a list of some of the most common Latin descriptors to help you learn more about a plant you are considering to add to your garden:

australis – southern
borealis – northern
canadensis – of the new world
orientalis – eastern
occidentalis – western

Growing Habit
alta – tall
compacta – compact
cyclops – enormous
divaricata – spreading
edulis – edible
elata – tall
elegans – slender
excelsa – tall
granda – large, showy
grandiflora – large flowered
helix – twisting
minor – small
nanus – dwarf
patens – spreading, open formed
procumbens – trailing
reptans – creeping
repens – a creeper
sempervirens – evergreen
scandens – a climber
titanus – gigantic

angustifolia – narrow leaved
aquifolia – sharp leaved
arborea – treelike
barbata – barbed or bearded
blanda – mild, pleasant
campanulata – bell shaped
centifolia – many leaved
conica – cone shaped
contorta – twisted
cordata – heart shaped
cordifolia – with heart shaped leaves
cristata – creasted
flore plena – with double flowers
floribunda – flowering freely
foetida – strong smelling
fragrans – fragrant
lanata – woolly
latifolia – broad leaved
lignea – woody
lobata – lobed
mollis – soft
maculata – spotted
microphylla – small leaved
mollis – soft,fuzzy
moschata – musk scented
multiflora – many flowered
nana – dwarf
orbicularis – disc shaped
nutans – nodding
officinalis – medicinal
parviflora – small leaved
pendula – weeping, hanging
pilosa – shaggy
pinnata – feather shaped
plena – full, double
plumosa – feathery
prostrata – prostrate
pumilo – small, dwarf
punctata – dotted
quinquefolia – with 5 leaflets
rotundifolia – round leaved
rugosa – wrinkled
simplex – undivided
speciosa – showy
spikata – spiked
tenula – thin
tomentisa – hairy
viscaria – with sticky stems

alba – white
atropurpurea – dark purple-red
aurea – gold
azurea – sky blue
caerulea – blue
candida – white
cardinalis – red
cinerea – light grey
citrina – yellow
coccinea – scarlet red
concolor – of one color
glauca – grey-white
lactiflora – white flowered
lutea – yellow-orange
nigra – black
purpurea – purple
sanguinea – red

alpinus – alpine
ammophilus – likes sandy places
arenaria – of sandy places
campestris – of the fields
monticolus – found growing wild in the mountains
nivalis – growing near snow, white
salinus – tolerates salty conditions
sylvatica – growing in woodlands
uliginosa – of marshy places

Romantic descriptors
autumnalis – of autumn
aquilegia – dove like
citriodorus – lemon scented
circaea – enchanters nightshade
eximia – distinguished
eringeron – soon growing old
regalis – regal
senicio – the old man
mimulus – little monkey
nymphea – old witch

For further reading look for “The Romance of Plant Life”, Interesting descriptions
of the Strange and curious in the plant world. Printed in1907.