The Dirt Diva

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Expand Your Horizons with a Pinch of Botanical Latin!


Knowing a little Botanical Latin can go a long way, even for the novice gardener. It comes in handy in the following ways:

1. when you are plant shopping in the nursery

2. when you are seed shopping in a catalog

3. when you are saving seed from your own garden plants

4. to better understand the life cycle and cultural requirements of your plants.

Let’s use a well-known cottage garden perennial, Monarda as an example. Monarda has many common names, including Bee Balm, Oswego Tea, Horsemint, Spotted Mint and Bergamot. It also exists in red, pink, purple and speckled white forms! Let’s say you saw the red variety in a friend’s garden and you decided you must have it! By using the Latin name of the variety pictured below, (Monarda didyma“Jacob Cline”)  you’ll get better results when searching either online or through a nursery employee, avoiding confusion among the many common names and varieties. Google image search is a useful first step when identifying a plant you don’t know the name of. (In fact I’m sure there is an app in which you snap a photo, then can search the name of a plant!)

Monarda didyma "Jacob Cline"
Monarda didyma “Jacob Cline”










Here’s how botanical Latin is structured:

Taxonomy diagram

Taxonomy diagram

For a gardener’s purposes, you really only need to pay attention to the last 3 naming categories, Family-Genus-Species. Using our red-flowered Monarda pictured above as an example,:

the Family is Lamiaceae

the Genus is Monarda

the Species is didyma,

and the name of the variety is “Jacob Cline”.

When written on a descriptive tag or in a catalog, the name of this plant would appear as: Monarda didyma, “Jacob Cline”, or simply M. didyma, “Jacob Cline”.

What does each part of a plant’s Botanical name tell you? As you can see in the diagram above, each level of classification (grouping) gets narrower as you move to the bottom, with fewer shared characteristics among its members.

If you are a seed saver, you’ll learn that plants which are members of the same genus will often readily cross-pollinate with each other, calling for some special interference on the gardener’s part. I’ll use members of the Curcurbitae family as an example.

Cucumis sativum "Wautoma"

Cucumis sativum “Wautoma”

Citrillus lunatus, "Sugar Baby"

Citrillus lunatus, “Sugar Baby”

Curcurbita maxima, "Sweet Meat"

Curcurbita maxima, “Sweet Meat”

The photos above, from left to right are: a cucumber, a watermelon and a winter squash. All are members of the Cucurbitae family, but each belong to a different genus: Cucumis, Citrillus and Cucurbita respectively. What does this  mean for the seed saving gardener? It means they could grow each of these 3 genus in the garden simultaneously, save seed from each of them, and replant that seed the following year, to achieve a new generation of plants that resemble their parents. But, lets say you are also growing this guy in the garden at the same time: Cucurbita pepo, “Black Beauty” a type dark green zucchini.

Cucurbita pepo, "Black Beauty"

Cucurbita pepo, “Black Beauty”

Zucchini belong to the same genus (Cucurbita) as winter squash, so the seed saving gardener would have to isolate the 2 plants by distance, caging, or staggering planting time, to be sure the flowers do not cross pollinate, which they would most certainly do if left alone! A gardener could still take the seed from the mature fruit of these plants, but upon replanting next season, a hybrid of the 2 plants would result, rather than a plant that resembles its parent.

Even though you most likely have gotten this far in your gardening efforts without knowing your botanical Latin, I feel it is important  for every gardener to have a little of it in their tool kit. If you’re intrigued and want to learn more, I can recommend two excellent references on the subject of Botanical Latin, seed saving and plant-climate relationships.

For perennial gardeners, grab a copy of Native Plants of the Northeast by Donald J. Leopold. (affiliate link)

For vegetable gardeners and seed savers, Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth will be your bible! (affiliate link)


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