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 A Little Book of Latin for Gardeners, by Peter Parker

30 November 2018

Prudence Fay enjoys an exploration of the botanists’ neo-Latin and their rivalries

PETER PARKER’s lively and informative book uncovers the mysteries of botanical nomenclature, and how plants came by the names that they have. The first known work of categorisation was written in Greek in 300 BC by Theophrastus (who inherited Aristotle’s garden in Athens), but Latin soon became the lingua franca of botanists everywhere, in every age up to the present.

We owe our categories of Division, Class, Order, Genus, and Species to the 18th-century Swedish botanist Linnaeus, who devised them. Most gardeners will be familiar with the last two, Linnaeus’s binomial identifiers, such as Helleborus niger. Latin in the garden is less a language, more a practical, universal tool.

Almost anything has served as the basis for a name: the patronymic of the plant-hunter who brought the plant home (Leonhart Fuchs, and fuchsia); the far country where it grew (aegiptycus, Egypt); colours; the shape of leaf or root or seedpod; animal or human body parts. The author provides a fact-packed chapter and glossary for each type of appellation.

Many plants and flowers have had a succession of names. Vivid folk nicknames (granny’s bonnet, bears’ ears) differ from place to place, and country to country. As knowledge advances, even Latin appellations change, to the annoyance of gardeners (the Michaelmas daisy, once an Aster, is now known as Symphyotrichum, although, as Parker points out, plant nurseries put their customers’ needs before scientific progress, and still list it under Aster). Many names are simply wrong. Some plants designated japonica, being first found in Japan (kerria, pieris, anemone), were actually natives of China.

Iberian cylcamen, Cylamen vernum (Gerard’s Herball); from the book

The incidental facts that pepper the pages are entertaining (the rhizomes of some irises provide an oil still used in perfume-making, “orris” being a 16th-century corruption of iris), and so are the anecdotes linked to centuries of botanists and classifiers. Parker makes the most of them. The great Linnaeus, he says, was a “dreadful man” who had “a very high opinion of his own merits” and, in his Systema Naturae, rejected many names created by his predecessors, replacing them with his own choices. Criticised for this by the botanist Johann Siegesbeck, Linnaeus gave his name to a “dreary weed”.

The text is pleasingly punctuated with line-drawings taken from the famous Herball of John Gerard, published in 1597. This is a book to delight any gardener kept indoors by dark winter days.

A Little Book of Latin for Gardeners
Peter Parker
Little, Brown £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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