Caecilius est in horto

“The question of nomenclature is always a vexed one.  The only thing certain is, that it is impossible to please everyone.”  (WJ Bean)

At school, Latin was always the subject we all loved to hate.  Miss Jackson and five years of study got me through ‘O’ level and I thought I was glad to see the back of the subject.  Over the years a growing love of plants and gardening eventually leading to a job with Plant Heritage has reignited my interest in the language.  Even my son, who only did 6 months of the subject, ten years ago, came out with the vaguely relevant title for this piece when I told him what I was doing.  (Although I think that I would have been taught to put the verb at the end of the sentance; Caecilius in horto est.) 

In keeping with my schoolday memories, Botanical Latin is often the subject of much grumbling, “Why can’t we have the names in English?”  “I can’t remember these Latin names” but Susyn Andrews, Consultant Horticultural Taxonomist, did a very good job at a recent workshop to improve our knowledge of Taxonomy and help us to understand why we use Latin.  

 A flock of ‘Jays’ from National Office ( Joanna, Judith, Genevieve, Gill and myself, Gillian), coordinators from Surrey, Suffolk and Norfolk and gardeners from Loseley Park attended a workshop on Basic Nomenclature and Plant Indentification.  We looked at the thorny old issue of common or vernacular names as a way of easing us into the basic definitions from Family, through Genus down to Cultivar with Section, Subspecies and Forma being only some of the additional levels on the cascade of information which can be used to define the name of a plant.

We looked at Synonyms, Homonyms, Misapplied names, Uncertain names and why plant names are changed.  Generally the name of a plant is that under which it was first described and the person writing the description is the Authority (and there is a hefty tome edited by Brummitt and Powell which lists these Authors with recommended standard forms of their names including abbreviations), but nowadays when there is an issue, usually with a homonym (two different plants given the same name), the most commonly grown plant can take precedence.

We were shown examples of labels from botanic gardens and arboreta, some good and some not so good, and at this point I realised that the Brother labels I had done for the Rose Garden here at Loseley would be on view in the afternoon garden tour.  However they almost passed muster with a comment on including cultivar names as well as selling names, e.g Rosa Gertrude Jekyll = ‘Ausbord’ instead of just Rosa Gertrude Jekyll.  However for the majority of visitors Gertrude Jekyll is more meaningful and memorable, sometimes a balance must be struck depending on the audience.

Changes are constantly being made to nomenclature as more is discovered about the plants. In the garden we looked at a beautiful example of a Davidia involucrata, which used to be in its own family, Davidiaceae, was then reclassified into Cornaceae and is now to be found in Nyssaceae.

Genevieve examining the hairs on the underside of the leaf of Davidia involucrata

The difference between two closely related genera, Juglans and Carya, was demonstrated with the chambered pith of the Juglans.

And the similarities of two genera were pointed out 


Gaura lindheimeri



 Finally the cold and darkening skies drove us back inside.  The day had given us all a taste of  how the naming of plants works and maybe when I am next at Wisley I will buy the copy of Stearn’s Latin for Gardeners if it is still in the Library Book Sale.

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We are very grateful to The Tanner Trust, The Topinambour Trust, The Mercers Company, Brother and NFU Mutual for the sponsorship of our workshops.

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2 Responses to Caecilius est in horto

  1. andeanflora says:

    Great reading. It is nice to be able to read and learn. The fuchsia is Fuchsia magellanica var molinae or more commonly known as var alba. Collected on the island of Chiloe 1933 100 metres


  2. Vincent Dunne says:

    Always a vexing issue. I never seem to keep on top of all of the changes. Some seem to be just to annoy. What was REALLY wrong with Aster and Coleus? Too easy to pronounce?

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