Here’s a little quiz for you in case you needed a change in your day.
• A: A dead language
• B: Pretentious
• C: Obsolete
• D: All of the above
• E: None of the above
Honestly, I’ve never thought much about it — not for a long time, anyway. In my previous life in the medical field, Latin was just normal. Learning Latin roots for medical terms as early as I did made a huge difference in my ability to learn the more advanced things later on. So, when I ran into it again in the Master Gardener course it was like renewing an old friendship. Not so for everyone.
There are many, many good reasons to learn at least some Latin, but that’s a discussion for some other time. What I want to say today is that Latin is the language of science and science deals in precision and accuracy and botany is science.
To a great many gardeners, myself included for a long time, fine precision and accuracy in plant selection particularly is not a big problem. You fancy pink roses? Great! Easy enough to find them in a shade you like at the big box store, or better yet at one of our local nurseries. Grandma’s favorite lilies? Go give your cousin a hand — he’s been digging and dividing them to give away so he has more room in his flower beds. Those tomatoes that make the best tomato sandwiches you’ve ever had? You saved some seed from last year.
This is perfect! Our home gardens have thrived just this way for generations and will likely do so for many more.
There are certainly times when it gets a little muddled, like when someone’s talking about buttercups and you realize they’re really talking about daffodils, or vice versa. Or your aunt’s describing her friend’s lovely beebalm. Or is it bergamot? Or Monarda-something, maybe? She’ll try to remember to bring you some so you can decide for yourself. And is that thing called butterfly weed, or butterfly bush, or is it all the same thing?
Sometimes you just need a little more precision in your life. Maybe you really do want to know what your aunt’s friend’s flower is. Or maybe you read in a magazine about some new kind of tomato that’s resistant to verticillium wilt, which you seem to have problems with every year. Maybe it’s a new variety of flower that the deer seem to hate. Maybe it’s an old variety of flower that deer seem to hate, but you’ve never heard of it before. Who knows? Maybe you’ve just gotten curious as to how we’ve arrived at the amazing variety of lilies we have these days.
This is where the Latin comes in. If we know the Latin name of that beebalmy flower, that new tomato variety or that specific lily with the amazing magenta freckles, we can locate that exact seed or plant or bulb and bring it home to our own gardens. Instead of going by trial-and-error with the seed catalogs — or trying to describe it to someone at the big box store, we can find exactly what we’re looking for — or tell the nursery what to order for us, or identify it for your aunt’s friend, who’s delighted when you tell her.
The Latin itself isn’t perfect, and it can be hard to learn. It’s like memorizing someone’s name, though. It might take you a time or two to remember it, but then it comes easily. And precisely, so you don’t mix up your two friends named Mike.
You’ll see the Latin or scientific names used from time to time in some of these gardening articles. It’s not that anyone’s trying to prove how smart they are or trying to confuse you. If anything, we’re trying not to confuse ourselves. Life’s tough enough. I’ll take precision and accuracy in the few places I can find it these days.
Hopefully it’s obvious now that the answer to the multiple-choice question above is E. No tricks here, just a few words on using Latin as a tool.
One place to start picking some up is in seed catalogs for serious gardeners. The good ones include the scientific names for the plants and seeds they sell. Look at the plant labels in the store. These, too, should include both the common and scientific names. The internet has a lot on the subject, as do our Halifax County and Mecklenburg County library systems. Happy hunting!
The Virginia Cooperative Extension Halifax Office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. If you have gardening questions, you can continue to reach an extension Master Gardener or extension staff member by sending an email to email@example.com or calling the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The help desk phone is routinely checked Monday-Friday. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number.
Bagby is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener intern and Virginia Master Naturalist.