Green Side Up

Garden talk with Gazette community blogger Janice Peterson.

More fun with botanical Latin (Really!)

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Janice Peterson
Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I recently wrote a blog about botanical Latin, which admittedly can be pretty dry stuff. Or is it? Remember those wonderful Road Runner - Wile E. Coyote cartoons? They'd freeze-framed the critters and identified them with faux Latin names. Road Runner would be called Accelleratti Incredibus, Speedipus Rex, Batoutahelius or Fastius Tasty-us. And Coyote would become Carnivorous Vulgaris, Apetitius Giganticus or Eatius Birdius. I'm willing to bet this was the first exposure into scientific (or not so scientific!) nomenclature for many of us. It certainly gave viewers an inkling of the binomial method to naming species.

I love descriptive Latin names like these, especially when they're real. There's a fungus named Pilobolus (translates to “hat-thrower”) which projects its spores quite a distance with an explosive throw. Great image! Daffodils (genus Narcissus) are named after Narcissus of Greek mythology, a vain young man who drowned while gazing down at his own reflection, leaving a beautiful flower in his place. Every time I see a daffodil with its head pointing down, I think of how vain it is! Linneaus saw bog rosemary in full bloom and thought the flower color resembled “a fine female complexion”. Hence he named it Andromeda after the beautiful Greek goddess who had been chained to a rock on the sea coast. Now that's a guy with a great imagination! 

Other plants are named after the person who discovered them. It may not give a clue about the characteristics of the plant but it's a wonderful insight into its history. Whenever I see Lewisia, Clarkia or Jeffersonia, I think of the great men these plants were named for and their horticultural endeavors.

Here are some other fun botanical words I've come across recently: oleracea (pertaining to vegetables), canadensis (from Canada), villosa (hairy), dentata (toothed) and rugosa (wrinkled). And these are real words – not made up by Warner Brothers!


Janice Peterson has worked as a grounds horticulturist at Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville since 2002. She is a master gardener with the Rock Prairie Master Gardener Association. Though her education is in plant science, she considers her love of gardening and strong back to be her true qualifications. Janice is a community blogger and is not a part of The Gazette staff. Her opinion is not necessarily that of The Gazette staff or management.

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