How to Pronounce Botanical Latin

with Plant Doctor Christopher Satch

Going to a garden center and seeing botanical Latin can be a little intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be!  While we give plants common names that are easy to remember (like pothos, fiddle leaf fig, tomato, etc.), we use Latin names to be very specific when referring to a plant (Epipremnum aureum, Ficus lyrata, and Solanum lycopersicum, respectively).  Sometimes, the common name IS the Latin (or scientific) name – Philodendron, Monstera, Hoya, etc.

We use common names typically when we are speaking generally about a plant, typically when selling or referring to it casually in a gardening group.  We use scientific names when we mean one very specific plant, and none others.  All plants have a scientific name (a.k.a. Latin name), which refers to species from nature, and that standard has been in use for hundreds of years.

Scientific names are helpful because:

  • They refer to one, and only one plant species
  • They infer relatedness (e.g. Solanum lycopersicum, tomato, is related to Solanum tuberosum, potato, as they are in the same genus, Solanum)
  • There is no confusion as to which plant you are talking about
  • They are universal, and understood no matter which language you speak
  • They tell you something about the plant! (Epidendrum ciliare, epi = on; dendrum = tree; ciliare = fringed-flower.  The fringed-flowered plant that lives on a tree, a very accurate description)

Common names are helpful because:

  • They are easy to remember

I prefer you to use scientific names whenever you can.  Consider the drawbacks of common names:

  • Not governed by any accepted rules
  • Variable from region to region
  • Not understood by all languages
  • May refer to more than one plant

PROTIP: Scientific names are always Genus, species, with Genus capitalized and species not, with the whole combo italicized OR underlined.

Ficus Lyrata = BAD,
Ficus lyrata = ALSO BAD,
ficus lyrata = STOP HURTING MY EYES,
Ficus Lyrata = almost, but no,
Ficus lyrata = YES,
Ficus lyrata = IDEAL YES.

When someone asks me for help with their “money tree” … I have to stop and wonder – did you mean the desert-dwelling Crassula ovata?  The tropical-dwelling Pachira aquatica?  The semi-tropical Dracaena sanderiana?  ALL of which are called “money trees” and have completely different care requirements!

Well, now that I’ve made my point, let’s get into how to say these names, and make them less intimidating.  Latin is a very easy and regular, predictable language to pronounce (but not to conjugate) once you know the rules.  Of course, humans have to spoil anything good, which is why they can be trusted with nothing.  Over time, there evolved several forms of Latin (Medieval, Ecclesiastical, Classical, just to name a few…), each with a slightly different pronunciation.  So why Latin?  Because it was the only language that was taught to the educated classes of Europe, because students came from different regions with different languages, and it really was just easier to have a de-facto language that everyone could speak in (see what I did there?).

So, because different folks from different regions all spoke Latin differently, and used different forms of Latin, there is no ONE TRUE correct way to pronounce Latin.  Yes, that is true.  BUT, I like to pronounce the words as closely to how the Romans would have pronounced them (not that we REALLY know, but we can infer…).  Now, throw in a little Greek, and the whole thing is toast.  Consider “ch”.  In English, we inherited this bastardized consonant cluster from both Latin and Greek.  It was originally a phlegmy “h” sound (in Greek), like in the German “achtung”, but later evolved to be a hard “k” as well as “tʃ” (the sound as in “cheese”).  What a mess!

Typically, I pronounce scientific names according to the root words that make them up.  My favorite example is Coelogyne.  Most English speakers will say “suh-lah-jen-ee”.  The root words are “coelo” and “gyne”, which are respectively pronounced “seel-oh” and “gai-n” (think gyne as in gynecologist).  We English speakers butcher loan words because our language is a creole, and consonant combos have multiple pronunciations.

But vowels are easier.  Almost all “a”s are pronounced like the “a”s in ABBA (one of my mother and mine’s favorite artists!), almost all “e”s are pronounced like “eh” as in “meh”, the sound of ennui (another word english speakers butcher), almost all “i”s are pronounced like “ih” as in “sip” or “ee” as in “me”, almost all “o”s are pronounced like “oh” as in “oh God, he’s typing a long run-on sentence”, and almost all “u”s are pronounced like “oo” as in “Subaru” or as “uh” as in “uh huh… yes, of course I’m still listening”.

Anyway, there’s another article worth reading on this subject here, and here, and here, if you are really into it, but again, there is no real “official” way to pronounce any Latin name… because humans ruin everything.

Oh, and one last thing!  If a plant is OBVIOUSLY named after a person, as is more common than you think, then it’s usually <<NAME>>-ii or <<NAME>>-iana/ia, as in Cattelya forbesii, Forbes’ Cattleya and Cattleya walkeriana, Walker’s Cattleya.

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