If you don’t know how to pronounce a plant’s scientific name, you’re not alone.
Can you say, Passiflora incarnata?
Photo Credit: David L. Morgan
Try saying Metasequoia glyptostroboides ten times fast. It's so much easier to say dawn redwood, eh? But common names can be very different for different regions, so professionals use Latin names to be exact.
Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman
Even those who have taken high school Latin may find themselves befuddled, as over time we botanists and horticulturists have pretty much wrecked proper Latin. Maybe that’s why it’s a “dead” language – plant people killed it.
Pronouncing plant names can be tough, no question. And unless you’re a Latin genius, how are you supposed to know that the proper way to say “Senecio,” a common ornamental plant, is “see-NEE-see-oh?”
There are two basic ways you might learn how to talk “plant Latin.” The first is through the help of pronunciation guides, such the New Pronouncing Dictionary of Plant Names (American Nurseryman Publishing Co., Chicago). Booklets like these can be found in bookstores, as well as through distributors of horticultural texts and gardening guides. (Timber Press and American Nurseryman are two sources you may want to try. You can also check out your favorite online bookstore.) Many plant books also indicate preferred pronunciation, including those authored by University of Georgia horticulturists Dr. Michael Dirr and Dr. Allan Armitage (available from Timber Press, Portland, OR).
The second way is to hang around plant experts who use these Latin names on a regular basis. You can find them at arboreta and botanical gardens, nurseries and garden centers – even some zoos. Just ask and listen. No doubt you will contribute to the further degradation of the Latin lingo, but at least you’ll get in with the right crowd.
But when it comes right down to it, don’t stress yourself over this stuff – no one said you have to pronounce the name of every plant you grow in your garden. (But kudos to you for giving it the ol’ college try!) Worse-case scenario: If there’s a particular species you’re interested in having for your yard and the name is just too long and intimidating for you to even attempt a half-correct-sounding pronunciation, no worries. Just write the name down and hand the paper over to your local garden professional. (Some may call that “taking the easy way out.” I call it a guarantee to getting the plant you want … and maybe saving face.)
Don’t be surprised if your high school Latin teacher appears in your dreams tonight. (And if you do see her, ask how she’d pronounce Leucophyllum frutescens.)