Book Review: Latin for Gardeners, by Lorraine Harrison
Latin for Gardeners is a fine book for people who love plants and enjoy language. Perhaps not a book that is essential to your gardening success, but a book that provides a good deal of entertainment and enlightenment.
For instance, isn’t it worth something to know that Alyssum (now Lobularia) was at one time used to treat madness? This explains the name, which comes from a (meaning not or against) and lyssum (meaning madness). So Alyssum basically means “not insane”. Not an association I would have guessed at.
Actually, most of Latin for Gardeners is a dictionary of epithets – the second or specific names of plants, not the first or genus name. Not something you would sit down and read from beginning to end. However, it is very handy for looking up plant names you are curious about, or just leafing through searching for linguistic nuggets.
In this way I learned that hircinus means goat-like (as in Hypericum hircinus). Or that myrmicophilus means ant-loving (Aescheynanthus myrmicophilus). When I told Judy this, I was informed that she was in no way myrmicophilus. And don’t you want to know what infundibuliformis means? (Answer: shaped like a funnel.)
Fortunately, the book has much more than an alphabetical list of Latin names. There are sections that discuss the various themes that can be found among these names.
Colors, for instance. There are many variations on “yellow” among plant names. Flaveola and lutea mean yellowish, flavens means yellow, and luridus means pale yellow (the last being the opposite of what an English speaker might expect).
There is also a discussion of epithets based on a plant’s smell. For instance, the epithet of the foul-smelling durian fruit (Durio zybethinus) means smelling like a civet cat. I don’t know what a civet cat smells like, but it can’t be good. I once had durian ice cream at a Thai restaurant, and it made me think of a cross between a peach and a really dirty sock.
On the other hand, you might expect a plant with the epithet melliodorus (Eucalyptus melliodorus) to be foul-smelling, but actually its name means it has the scent of honey.
In addition, there are plant profiles and short biographies of plant explorers who have been memorialized in many genus and species names.
If you enjoy learning the meanings and histories of names, you will find Latin for Gardeners to be a diverting and useful book.