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.

latin for gardeners

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.

25 Comments on “Book Review: Latin for Gardeners, by Lorraine Harrison

  1. Some names are really useful to know, if the plant is nano it will be a dwarf variety for example. I don’t have this book but I would like to have it.

  2. I really enjoyed thumbing through this book last year – a nice reminder to take another look. Thanks Jason!

  3. This is just my kind of book. As gardeners I think we should all get to grips with botanical Latin because it is an international language that we can all communicate in. Vernacular names for plants may be pretty but they are often regional and so quite useless for speaking to people round the world as we do with our blogs.
    It is really useful to have a book which explains the Latin terms. Thank you for the review Jason.

    • The vernacular may be easy to say, but ultimately they are very confusing. Though many have a history of their own that can be interesting.

  4. I also like the Complete Gardener’s Dictionary by B. Ellis which has helped me with plant- and garden-related terms, such as astemonous (lacking stamens), stooling (mound layering), or resupinate (upside down, usually flowers that are turned on their stems like impatiens). Anything that makes gardening easier (or easier to understand) is a prize, don’t you think? Thanks for your review of another good book for my library.

  5. I haven’t had the pleasure (?) of a durian ice-cream, but I do have this book, its very useful and interesting, the botanical illustrations are really lovely too. There is a sister book, Botany for Gardeners, which I would thoroughly recommend. Despite the serious look of these books, the information inside is really accessible and written in understandable language.

  6. Thanks for this review. The book sounds interesting. It does help to be familiar with these terms, something I’m slowly learning.

  7. It looks like a very interesting book. I think I have Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for gardener which is a similar type of book. As you point out, sometimes the name can be misleading. For instance digitalis “grandiflora” has smaller flowers than the common foxglove (but bigger than the other yellow foxgloves).

  8. This does sound like a handy reference book and I am such a plant geek I would probably read the thing. =)

    A million years ago I used to get the Chiltern seed catalogue. I don’t know if it still the same but it used to be like 300+ pages with amazing descriptions of plants from the most mundane to the most obscure. I loved it. I lived in zone 3 then and winter lasted a LONG time. That catalogue was a life line to spring.

      • I recall clearly standing at the bus stop one morning with frozen hair VOWING I’d move to the west coast as soon as I was finished with college. =) Never looked back ….

  9. Oh I must put this book on my wishlist. I have recently taken quite an interest in latin naming. It is rewarding to figure out the meaning of a plant name – it also really helps me to remember plant names! Another one for the library!

  10. I very much enjoy learning what’s behind a name and have several books – alas, not this one but it sounds great. Also worth reading: The naming of names, Stearn’s Dictionary of Plants and Plants in myth, legend, magic and lore…to add some more to your list 🙂

  11. I am definitely going to check out this book, since I have a thing about language and etymologies. I have a little pamphlet-like book that is similar, but this seems more extensive. Thanks for the review.

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