Why are plant names in Latin? Why are they so difficult to pronounce and why do they change? These are questions a botanist is frequently asked. Historically, man was only interested in plants useful to him for food or medicinal purposes. These plants were given descriptive names which varied frequently from district to district and more obviously, changed according to language or dialect. Names are needed to positively identify certain plants to people from different regions or speaking other languages.
Modern names date back to 1753 when Carl Linnaeus - the father of modern botany - published his Species Plantarium. In it, Linnaeus used a very concise Latin which Stearn (ex-British Museum of National History) says is "the kind of Latin that the Romans would have used if they had written telegrams". Linnaeus gave plants a name consisting of two words called the 'binomial', so that Mangifera indica (mango) is like 'Smith John', where the specific epithet comes last and distinguishes the particular Smith or Mangifera. A third name may be used to identify a variety. The binomial is always written in Latin which was the international language of learning. Latin is not subject to modern idiom and can be equally well translated into other languages - or conversely. It is just as difficult for a Russian as an Australian.
Frequently it is expressed that these Latin names are unpronounceable. Perhaps this is rather a consequence of our unfamiliarity with these names and of the fact that English is not a phonetic language. At times, the Latin name is simpler than a common name e.g. Punica, - Pomegranate, Musa - Banana.
Occasionally these specimens were stored in reference collections in different countries. Only when someone works closely with these specimens and searches the literature do they find that a plant has been named twice. In these cases, the earlier name is the one that must be used. Sometimes a plant should more properly be assigned to another genus and a name change is affected for this reason. The naming of plants is controlled by a strict code, 'The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature'.
Plants are initially grouped into very large orders. All plants in the same order should have some similarities. These orders contain one or more families; the members of each family should also have a number of features in common. All family names, except for a very few old ones, end in '-aceae'. Families, in turn, are divided into genera (plural of 'genus') and species. Species may be further subdivided to subspecies and varieties etc. Horticultural varieties are termed CULTIVARS.
Plant names should have predictive value. Thus, in the 1980 Growers List under the family ANACARDIACEAE, there are eight genera listed, including Mangifera and Pleiogynium. If it is known that both these genera are in this family, then a botanist will automatically (ideally) be able to predict that these two genera will have the following features:
1. Resin will be present somewhere in the plant and these resiniferous compounds may be poisonous.
2. They will form trees or shrubs with alternate, possibly compound, leaves.
3. The flowers will be symmetrical with 5 sepals and petals and 5 to 10 stamens.
4. There will be a disk (disc) between the stamens and the ovary.
If, on the other hand, you look at the flower of Rambutan, you will notice that the disk is between the stamens and where the petals should be, thus it is not in the Anacardiaceae but in the closely related family, Sapindaceae.
Pronunciation of these Latin plant names inevitably varies with the mother tongue of the speaker. There are some major 'schools'; the 'English' method uses a pronunciation analogous to English words. The 'Roman' method attempts to use speech as it was used in Rome between 50 BC and 50 AD - as much as possible. The 'Continental' method duplicates the pronunciation as it was used in the R.C. Church during the middle ages: i.e. vowels as in the 'Roman' method and the consonants as in the language of the country. In general, we use English sounds for vowels and consonants but follow the rules of Classical Latin for accenting.
Clearly, plant taxonomy and nomenclature are vast areas for the scholar. Nonetheless, the orchardist and the amateur tree collector will find some knowledge of the subject very useful, but must accept that plant groupings or even the occasional name change are made for good reasons.
(From a talk to the R.F.C. Townsville Branch 24.11.81. Precis by Jim Darley)
DATE: March 1982
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