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Botanical Latin

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Oh, my aching muscles...

A lesson in the language of plants

By William T. Stern
Timber Press, Portland, OR
1992, reprinted in 1996
(originally published in 1966)

Not even the most ardent horticulture student can be expected to wade through William Stearn’s “Botanical Latin” for simple fun. But if you’re looking for the foremost authority on Latin plant names—including all the when’s and where’s and why’s of how this universal plant language was developed—then this is your manual.

First published in 1996, the two-inch-thick text is currently in its fourth printing, from Timber Press, of Portland, Ore. It is recommended by the Journal of the Royal Horticulture Society, for which Professor Stearn once served as librarian (the very least of his credentials, by the way).

So what is botanical Latin? It is certainly a spoken language, at least in part, for anyone who has spent any time at all in a nursery or around plants. But for most of us, it’s a lot of gobbledygook that’s hard to decipher, let alone speak—much as we sometimes wish we could.

That’s where this book can be of help. For readers who have no knowledge at all of botanical Latin, Stearn devotes several chapters specifically to the grammatical elements of the language. He also gives homework.

Included is a brief discussion of the origin of botanical Latin. And a chapter on vocabulary is useful for the garden connoisseur who hopes to gain a more thorough knowledge of plants, though Stearn concedes that much can be learned by simply working around other botanists.

On one hand, Stearn’s writing demonstrates a real interest in the elements of the language, and he provides an authoritative argument for its necessity. It is indeed the language of plant-lovers and, perhaps it is true, as he credits E. J. H. Corner with noting in 1960, “We botanists keep Latin alive.”
It is this type of sentiment which gives this book some redeeming value for the non-academic. There is a true affection for the language, which at times slips through in Stearn’s otherwise high-brow interpretation of this cross-cultural language of plants.

Also of merit, some of the 42 illustrations—by various artists—are nicely done, and oftentimes, provide a glad diversion (as well as explanation of Stearn’s points).

There is no doubt as to the usefulness of this book. Stearn addresses that matter in his forward, in several aspects, including one in which he describes botanical Latin as “distinct from (its predecessor) classical Latin.” This text provides an excellent reference for anyone wanting to learn to really speak and understand botanical Latin. (Syntax, parts of speech, use of case, punctuation, prefixes and suffixes are all covered, as well as some discussion of Greek and geographic origins.)

It may also be intriguing to anyone interested in learning the elements of descriptive terminology—color, texture, leaf-shape and leaf-division, for example—in the assignment of Latin names. For example, the shapes of leaves—whether conical or “melon-shaped”—in turn affect the plant’s Latin description.

Yet even Stearn admits—to a point—that, while much needed, this book is primarily an academic exercise in botanical Latin and “only incidentally explains the meaning and application” of Latin names for plants.
Therefore, other books may serve as better references for those seeking to simply look up plant names in hopes of clarification.

To that end, try consulting the “Glossary of the British Flora” by H. Gilbert-Carter, or “Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners” (1992), by our friend, Professor Stearn. (He recommends both.) A general bibliography, included in this book, suggests additional reading on the scientific structure and origin of botanical Latin.

NWGN archive published February 1997

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