Test your knowledge about botanical latin by answering true or false to the following questions.
1. The Latin name of a plant is important. 2. Carl von Linne developed the binomial system of plant names in 1753. 3. Alba, luteus, purpureus and rosea all refer to colours. 4. If you need small shrubs, look for plants with nana in the name. 5. If you prefer native species, favour the specific epithet canadensis. 6. Rubrum, coccineus and amur all refer to the colour red. 7. Rosa rugosa is so-named because it is hardy or rugged. 8. Plants with the specific epithet sylvestris were discovered by the Italian monk Sylvester. 9. A plant with officinalis in its name is the true species. 10. The specific epithet reptans means “creeping”, like a reptile.
1. Hmmm… I’m going to go
with true. While the garden-variety gardener may be happy referring to that orange plant as a marigold, the horticultural community needs to be able to distinguish whether it is Calendula or Tagetes, two completely different plants commonly called marigold. Latin naming conventions have the advantages of crossing language barriers, and while it may seem like nobody can understand the names, in fact they are very descriptive, as much of this quiz will demonstrate.
2. True. The question isn’t meant as a history lesson but as an entry to say a little more about the binomial system. “Binomial” means “twoname”, and the two names are the Genus—which refers to the general kind of plant, like Rosa for rose, and is capitalized—and the specific (as in species) epithet (name), which is the specific type of plant, written all lower-case. The great thing about the specific epithet is that it is an adjective: it describes the plant, so sometimes you can get a good idea what a plant looks like just from hearing its Latin name. For example, Rosa grandiflora
is a large-flowered rose. Sometimes, though, the specific epithet gives information about where a species is from or who discovered it; you can’t tell from the name Rosa chinensis
what the size or colour of a Chinese rose is. Neither does the title Viburnum davidii tell you much about the form of that flowering shrub named in honour of French Jesuit and plant egghead Armand David.
3. True. Any flower with the name alba will be white, luteus will be yellow, purpureus will be purple and rosea will be pink.
4. True. Nana means dwarf; you don’t find nana as the specific epithet in modern cultivars very often, though; it is more common as part of the variety name and frequently seen with aurea, which means chartreuse. Two dwarf golden shrubs that have sold well in the last couple of years are the barberry Berberis thunbergii var. aurea nana and the false cypress Thuja orientalis var. aurea nana.
5. True. Canadensis means “of Canada”. Mind you, if you are particular about how native a plant is, the
canadensis tag won’t tell you if a plant is from British Columbia, the prairies or Peterborough. But you can know that Aquilegia canadensis, for instance, is the pretty woodland columbine native to Canada.
6. False. Rubrum and coccineus both mean red, but amur refers to the Amur River in Asia. Of course, many plantsmen would guess that
amur means red because of the Amur maple, which turns a wonderful fiery shade in autumn. Strangely enough, though, the botanical name for Amur maple is Acer ginnala, not Acer amur. Stranger still: I cannot find the meaning of the specific epithet ginnala anywhere.
7. False. Rugosa roses are generally hardier than hybrid teas, but rugosa means “wrinkled” and refers to the leaves.
8. False. The Latin sylvestris means “woodland”, as in Mentha sylvestris (wild mint). 9. False. It’s only in common parlance that plants need to be distinguished as “true” or “false”, as in a “true grass” (member of the Gramineae or Poaceae family, unlike, say, sedges) or “false sunflower”.
Officinalis is used to distinguish a plant of use to humans; it is often the specific epithet for culinary herbs, as with Salvia officinalis (common sage) or medicinal herbs, as with
Calendula officinalis (pot marigold). It isn’t always obvious why a species gets the epithet officinalis, as with the common peony Paeonia officinalis. 10. True. Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up!
8-10 correct: Summa cum laude! 5-7 correct: Cum laude.
Fewer than 5 correct: It’s all Greek to you, isn’t it?
Is this Calendula officinalis the only true marigold?