Just the other day, I was working with a bunch of Master Gardeners preparing a garden for the county fair when one of them noticed a bare space. Sure enough, in one of the central beds, a group of plants had recently given up the ghost on a prominent corner. In no time, we all agreed that a lacy evergreen would be the perfect replacement. And that’s when I suggested chamaecyparis.
Latin words can confuse even the most seasoned of gardeners and chamaecyparis is no exception. With the team looking at me expectantly, I pronounced it cham-oh-SIP-reus.
My co-chair’s raised eyebrows were a clear indication of my misstep.
‘I think you mean, kam-ah-si-PIE-russ, ‘ she said kindly.
That’s when another team member, Steve, piped in. Recently he had read an article on the origin of botanical names and according to him, much of it may be up for discussion.
ARE THERE RULES TO BOTANICAL LATIN?
Steve had already forwarded me the article entitled ‘Say What: Pronouncing Botanical Latin’ by the time I got home. Written by Rebecca Alexander, it’s a clever look at our struggle not to embarrass ourselves by mispronouncing botanical names in front of other gardeners. Steve wrote that, for him, the most interesting sentence was
‘How they are pronounced really matters little provided they sound pleasant and are understood by all concerned.’
Is it ag-ah-STAH-chee or ag-ah-STACH?
The author is the Plant Answer Line librarian at University of Washington’s Miller Library for Urban horticulture. She poses the question: Are there hard and fast rules for pronouncing botanical names?
Alexander cites William Stearn’s ‘Botanical Latin’ as a primary source. First published in 1966, it is a guide to Latin usage in the botanical world and, according to its book jacket, ‘accepted by horticulturists and botanists everywhere as the medium for naming new plants.’ Coincidently, the author also penned Steve’s favorite quote above.
Stearn says ”One common approach is to pronounce botanical names according to classical Latin. However, classical Latin doesn’t necessarily include all of the sounds used in botanical Latin.” This makes things difficult, indeed.
HOW DID PLANTS GET LATIN NAMES, ANYWAY?
We have the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus to thank for assigning Latin names to plants. In the 1700s, he developed a system for classifying plants according to genus and species. He supposedly chose Latin because it was a dead language and didn’t risk offending anyone who might then refuse to study horticulture.
Statue of Carl Linnaeus in Lund, Sweden
The brilliance of Botanical Latin is that it provides a common language for horticulturists by assigning one name to one plant that is recognized by all. Not only are botanical names standardized, but they also enable the user to communicate about plants with anyone, regardless of language, all over the world.
COMMON NAMES CAN VARY BY REGION
Common names, on the other hand, can vary widely from region to region. And often they are applied to more than one plant. For example, snowball bush can refer to a viburnum or hydrangea, depending on your region.
Chinese snowball viburnum
Or, sometimes a plant can have several common names, making it hard to recognize whether or not someone is talking about a species you know. Take for example agastache (commonly known as Hummingbird Mint or Hyssop) or Jacobaea maritima (commonly known as Silver ragwort or Dusty Miller.) The various names have nothing in common.
WHAT ARE BOTANICAL NAMES MADE UP OF?
A botanical name is made up of two or more parts. The first part is the genus name and the second part is the specific epithet (descriptive term.) Together, they tell you the plant species. In addition, Latin names tell you the following about a plant:
WHERE IT’S FROM: Canadensis (Canada), chenesis (China), japonica (Japan)
Pieris japonica, or Japanese andromeda
ITS COLOR: Alba (white), nigra (black) purpurea (purple)
Echinacea purpurea, or Purple Coneflower
WHERE IT GROWS: Sylvatica (growing in the woods), nivalis (growing near snow)
Galanthus nivalis, or Snowdrops
ITS SHAPE OR HABIT: Compacta (dense) procumbens (low-growing) dendron (tree-like) gracilis (slender)
Juniper procumbens, Creeping juniper
BOTANICAL NAMES MAY INCLUDE PEOPLE’S NAMES
And then there are those plant names that honor people and have been incorporated into the botanical name. In this case, there are no clear rules on how to pronounce them.
Take for example, the showy shrub weigela, named after the German botanist Christian Ehrenfried von Weigel (1748-1831). People often say why-JEEL-ah (myself included). However, the German consonant ‘w’ is pronounced like an English ‘v’, which would make the true pronunciation VIE-gee-lah.
Is it why-GEE-luh or Why-guh-luh?
The Merriam –Webster Online Dictionary (audio version) agrees with me that weigela is pronounced why–GEE-Luh. And so does Fine Gardening Magazine’s Online Pronunciation Guide. But other sources draw a distinction between the American WAY-guh-luh and the English WHY-guh-luh. I guess it depends what side of the Atlantic you’re on.
emPHAsis ON THE WRONG syl-LAB-le
In fact, emphasis on different syllables seems to be the main difference in pronunciation. Ask a few gardeners and you’ll get a wide range of answers on any given plant depending on where they’re from. A great example is brunnera. BRUN-er-ah and brun–NAIR-uh are two pronunciations I encounter often in Maryland. But I’ve also heard brun–NEER-ah on the West Coast used as the botanical name.
Alexander concludes that you could waste a lot of time arguing about it all. But, ultimately the most important thing is to know which scientific names the common names refer to and how those names are spelled. For gardeners, a working knowledge of botanical Latin for the accurate identification of plants in the garden is essential.
So, back to Chamaecyparis (which, by the way, I need to look up each time I spell it). According to Merriam Webster, it is pronounced, CHAM-ah-cyp-a-riss.
But in other sources, I found variations on my co-chair’s rendition:
All to say, we may not agree on pronunciation, but thanks to botanical names, she and I knew what we were talking about.
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