DISCOVERING HERBS

NAMING PLANTS in LATIN

According to the research department at Kew Gardens, there are currently more than 391,000 species surviving in this world.  Each has a different name.  Imagine trying to learn them all, to know them all. Imagine being able to identify them!  But groups of plants can have look-a-likes … they have characteristics which are similar to other species.

The history of plant systematics, the biological classification of plants, stretches from the work of ancient Greeks to modern evolutionary biologists. Way back, there is evidence that the Sushrut (800-1000 BC) (Indian Scholars of Ayurveda) first classified plants in 4 categories based on flowering pattern, structure and life span.

Many systematics were created but the Hierarchical System that is used today, originated in the mid 1700’s from the work of Swedish naturalist called Carl Linnaeus. He developed a system which grouped plants according to similarities and differences such as leaf shape, flower forms and fruit structure.

When creating his ‘Binomial system of nomenclature‘ he used descriptive Latin to create unique names for each known species.  Such a challenge often turns even the most avid plant hunter off. But not me! 

I had to study Latin at school.  I didn’t like Latin!  All the texts we were given seemed to be about wars (Bellum) and Roman society (Civis Romanus) … boys stuff! 

But then I discovered that the plants I loved all had Latin names. Not only that, but their Latin names were really very descriptive of their appearance. I soon picked up a whole new vocabulary much more enticing that out Latin texts!

The beauty of naming each plant in this ancient common language from which much of our modern languages developed, is evident. To me anyway.  As many plant species migrate around the world they are named locally depending on their appearance or may be their usefulness!  However, wherever they are in the world their Latin name never changes.

Naming isn’t random.  The “genus” is the larger of the two groups and can be equated to the use of a last name like “Jones.” For example, genus identifies one as “Jones” and the species would be akin to an individual’s first name, like “Katy.” Combining the two names gives us a unique term for this person’s individual name just as combing the “genus” and “species” scientific Latin plant names gives us a unique botanical nomenclature guide for each individual plant.

This diagram shows how plants are classified into smaller and smaller groups: 

The first FAMILY of plants I came across created such an immediately recognisable pictorial image that I felt instantly familiar with them! Their flowers form UMBRELLA shaped clusters.

The UMBELLIFERAE family of plants which is one of the largest in the plant kingdom with over 3000 species. Each of these species has this particular shape to its flower-heads .. an Umbrella shape is called an UMBEL. So many plants become instantly recognisable as belonging to this family. You may have heard of some of them :-