Gardener's Latin

(This column was first published in the January 17, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    Latin remains a major roadblock to my progress in biology.

    My only school brush with this language was a brief seventh grade introduction. All I can remember from that experience is that the farmer, agricola,is for some reason feminine.* Shortly after that, as a teenager my newfound interest in birds became more serious and I decided to learn some of their Latin names, those binomials that biologists assign to each species. Knowing those names, I felt, would mark me as a serious ornithologist. Unfortunately I didn't get very far.

    I began with Sturnus vulgarisfor the European starling, Corvus brachyrhynchosfor the American crow, Melospiza melodiafor the song sparrow and Plantesticus migratoriusfor the American robin. I suppose I started with those species because they were as common then as they are today but one of them turned out to be a fateful choice. I had just mastered the name Linnaeus himself had given to our robin when the species was moved into a new genus, its name changed to Turdus migratorius. That was enough for me. My venture into avian systematics was over. All I was left with was a response to those purists who derided common names for their tendency to change over time.

    The reason for recounting my experience is that I have just run across a delightful little book, Gardener's Latin,written by Bill Neal and published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. It is quite simply a Latin-English dictionary for plant species names. In the brief time we have owned this book, the pages have become dog-eared with use, my wife referring to it even more than I have. We no longer need to feel uncomfortable with those names; from abbreviatus:shortened to zonatus:zoned, we can just look them up.

    Neal tells us in his introduction: "For a dead language, Latin gets a lot of use these days, especially by gardeners. Friends who used to grow loosestrife and bee balm now talk about their Lythrumand their Monarda.... Common plant names are a rich trove of imagery, and I would never suggest that we stop talking about pigweed, pussytoes, or live-in-a-puff. But common names can be troublesome when it is time to go shopping. Let's say, for example, that your mother wants a 'rose of Sharon' for her birthday. This name is commonly applied to two plants, one Hypericum calcinum,a foot high groundcover that blooms in midsummer, another Hibiscus syriacus,a shrub up to fifteen feet tall that blooms at summer's end -- neither of the m roses. By relying solely on the common name you risk buying one plant when you thought you were choosing the other."

    You get a bonus here of learning about the language and the plants as well. Some of the words have clues embedded in them: for example, albulusmeans whitish and we can see there the same source for albumen, the white of an egg. The genus in which baby's breath belongs is Gypsophilameaning gypsum loving, thus it should be planted in calcareous soil.

    I find the marginal notes, beautifully illustrated by Barbara Damrosch's line drawings, of equal interest. Delphinium, Neal notes, "is a diminutive of the Greek for dolphin because the flower nectary is said to resemble the friend of shipwrecked sailors. The leaves of the plant are less friendly, known to poison man and beast alike." And for tremuloides:trembling, he adds: "The leaves of the quaking aspen, Populus tremuloides,tremble and shiver in even the slightest breeze. Country people believed the shaking could cure their fever and chills. Those who were ailing would cut a lock of their hair, tie it to the tree, and say, 'Aspen tree, aspen tree, shake and shiver instead of me.'"

    A perfect addition to any gardener's or botanist's library.-- Gerry Rising

* It now turns out that even that one remembered "fact" has failed me. A friend who is a university Latin teacher has informed me that agricola is not feminine in Latin although it is in some of the Romance languages. As I write this, I hope that I am representing even this information correctly.