Learn the Latin: Etymology as a memory aid - and for fun

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Learn the Latin

By Xeramtheum
October 26, 2014

Learning Latin names is not as difficult as you might think. A little at a time, we can learn the Latin names of our plants and avoid quite a bit of confusion.

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Name: Asa

Bee Lover Garden Photography Region: Utah Garden Ideas: Master Level Photo Contest Winner: 2016
Oct 26, 2014 5:11 AM CST
Another aspect to this - and one that can help with understanding and remembering the names - is to actually look up the names and break them down.

Take common basin sagebrush for example: Artemisia tridentata

Artemesia - from the Greek goddess Artemis (apparently Wormwood [family? in this case] was sacred to her?).

Tridentata - tri=3, dent=tooth. Look at the 3-toothed leaves and it makes good sense. Think tricycle (three wheels) and dentist as cognates.

Words, even Latin words, have meaning and there's (usually) a good reason for plants to have the names that they do. Exploring the etymology can (and probably should) be done for everything you're trying to commit to memory. And it's a fun exercise in its own right. It's an awfully lot like playing with conceptual (linguistic) legos.
Name: Jay
Nederland, Texas (Zone 9a)
Region: Texas Region: Gulf Coast Charter ATP Member I helped beta test the first seed swap I helped plan and beta test the plant database. I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database!
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Oct 26, 2014 5:39 AM CST
Breaking down the word not only helps with understanding the plant in question, but also with other plants, as you start to recognize those words. Example: angustifolius = narrow leaf, folia, folius folium all mean leaf. So when you see names like absinthifolius,
acaciifolia, and acanthifolium, you already have a head start in understanding the meaning.

[Last edited by Horntoad - Oct 26, 2014 3:14 PM (+)]
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Name: Becky
Sebastian, Florida (Zone 10a)
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Oct 26, 2014 7:35 AM CST
Very good points in the article and the above posts!
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters, compared to what lies within us.
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[Last edited by beckygardener - Oct 26, 2014 7:37 AM (+)]
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Name: Anne
Summerville, SC (Zone 8a)
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Oct 26, 2014 7:39 AM CST
Indeed! Some of the names also indicate color of the plants/flower - alba = white, rubra = red, flavus = yellow, caeruleus = blue.
"The Universe speaks in many languages, but only one voice. It speaks in the language of hope; It speaks in the language of trust; It speaks in the language of strength, and the language of compassion. It is the language of the heart and the language of the soul. But always, it is the same voice. It is the voice of our ancestors, speaking through us, And the voice of our inheritors, waiting to be born. It is the small, still voice that says: We are one. No matter the blood; No matter the skin; No matter the world; No matter the star; We are one. No matter the pain; No matter the darkness; No matter the loss; No matter the fear; We are one. Here, gathered together in common cause. we agree to recognize this singular truth, and this singular rule: That we must be kind to one another, because each voice enriches us and ennobles us, and each voice lost diminishes us. We are the voice of the Universe, the soul of creation, the fire that will light the way to a better future. We are one."

Name: Elaine
Sarasota, Fl
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Oct 26, 2014 11:21 AM CST
Yep, although some also reflect the names of the botanists who 'discovered' and documented them. Orchids are bad for this and are now in a huge upheaval of name-changing.

How about Habenaria erichmichaelii? You'd think Mr. Erich Michael might have been satisfied with just putting his last name on it, wouldn't you? Rolling my eyes.

A little caveat on this, although I do like to know the Latin names too - some people think you are being a snobby elitist if you spout Latin names too much. I volunteer at Plant Clinics where it's encouraged to use common names with the general public unless you're asked specifically for a botanical name.

"Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." –Winston Churchill
Name: greene
Savannah, GA (Sunset 28) (Zone 8b)
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Oct 26, 2014 4:26 PM CST
Mostly I like to see the blank look on faces when a neighbor says, "Oh, what is that pretty flower?" and I hit them with the botanical name - saying it as rapidly as possible. Rolling on the floor laughing
I wait a beat or two and then lighten up to give them not only the common name, but will tell them if the plant is edible or medicinal.
Almost every time they will go home with at least one plant that they had admired.
Sunset Zone 28, AHS Heat Zone 9, USDA zone 8b~"Leaf of Faith"

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