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You To Can Speak Botanical Latin in Five Minutes

Jessica Morgan, M.H.

Common names can be a source of confusion. Frequently the same plant has more than one name: butterfly weed, for example. Because it was once used to treat pleurisy, butterfly weed is known by pleurisy root in some areas. Bouncing Bet, a common roadside wildflower brought to America by European settlers, is also known as soapwort: its leaves and rhizomes boiled in water make a lather for laundry and bathing. But, not so fast, other names for bouncing bet are fuller's herb and lady's washbowl...hmmm. Just as confusing as having a plant with more than one common name is having the same name applied to two or more different species. Marigold for example: Calendula and Tagetes share this common name.

To avoid such confusion, scientists use a standardized two-part naming system called binomial nomenclature.The first part of the plant's name gives its genus, the group to which it belongs and which it shares many features. The second part of the plants name tells it species-the particular kind of plant in the genus such as Rosa multiflora is the specific name for the mutliflora (many-flowered) rose. Also, the second (species) part of the name more often than not, describes something specific about the plant. Sometimes it tells the color of a plant's flowers; alba for white, rubrus for red, purpureum for purple. Or it may describe foliage; grandifolia for large leaves, rotundifolia for round leaves, millefoliium for thousand- or many-leaved. Or it may describe some other salient characteristic, erectus for upright, hirsutum for hairy, odorata for fragrant, myrtilloidies for myrtlelike. Some species names describe where a plant is typically found; montana- on the mountain, maritima- by the sea, aquatilis- in the water. And others tell how people have used the plants; edulis for edible, cathartica for cathartic and so on.

But, here's where it gets fun.

Botanical names are easier to pronounce than they may appear to be. With few exceptions, you simply say the word as you would any English word. No matter how many syllables the word has, just say each syllable, one after the other, the way you would if you were asked to pronounce any ordinary word slowly and distinctly. As for the question of which syllables to stress, even botanists may differ- but they always manage to understand one another, nevertheless. In the following examples, the syllables usually stressed are printed in capital letters. If you spend five minutes pronouncing your way through the words that follow, you will begin to get the knack of speaking Botanical Latin. The quasi-phonetic re-spellings after each item give only a rough-and-ready suggested style of pronunciation, helping to solve typical kinds of problems you may encounter in speaking botanical names or hearing them spoken. Note of ch, cn, and cy.

Abies balsamea: AY-beez ball-SAY-mee-ah

Achillea millefolium: ah-KILL-ee-ea- MILL-i-FOH-lee-um

Cheiranthus cheiri: KYE-ran-thus KYE-rye

Cnicus benedictus: NYE-kus ben-i-DIK-tus

Cynoglossum officinale: SY-noh-GLOSS-um off-fiss-i-NAY-lee

Cypripedium calceolus: SIP-ri-PEE-dee-um kal-SEE-oh-luss

Euonymus europaeus: you-OH-nim-us you-roh-PEE-us

Glycyrrhiza lepidota: GLIS-sir-RYE-zah lep-ID-oh-tah

Iris psudacorus: EYE-ris soo-DAY-koh-rus

Ligustrum vulgare: li-GOO-strum vul-GAY-ree

Lycopodium clavatum: lye-koh-POH-dee-um klah-VAY-tum

Lysimachia nummularia: lye-si-MAY-kee-ah NEW-mew-LAY-ree-ah

Medicago sativa: MED-i-KAY-goh sah-TIE-vah

Ruta graveolens: ROO-tah- gray-VEE-oh-lens

Stachys palustris: STACK-is pah-LUSS-tris

Tussilago farfara: tuss-i-LAY-goh FAR-far-ah

One specific name, officinalis (sometimes officinale: off-fiss-i-NAY-lee), deserves a special comment because it is part of the scientific name of so many medicinal plants. It means "of the workshop." The allusion is to apothecaries' shops, and the name signifies that any officinalis plant was once prized by the apothecary, forerunner of today's licensed pharmacist or druggist. Thus balm is Melissa officinalis; the dandelion is Taraxacum officinale; eyebright is Euphrasia officinalis, to give three examples. As you can see, the scientific name is really rather far from being mystifying, but gives us a bit of useful information about the plant, inviting us to learn a bit more.

As always, please email any questions to

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Copyright 2011. All rights reserved. Jessica Morgan, M. H., Morgan Botanicals.

Disclaimer - The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for advice from your physician or other health care professional. You should not use the information in this article for self-diagnosis or to replace any prescriptive medication. You should consult with a health care professional before starting any diet, exercise or supplementation program, before taking any medication, or if you have or suspect you might have a health problem, suffer from allergies, are pregnant or nursing.

Jessica Morgan, M.H.

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very nice and informative! I've always had a hard time keeping those latin names in order, but your explaination is a real help!


Posted by Elaynn McGuffrey on March 14, 2011 at 03:18 PM PDT #

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