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See it, Say it, Sorted

would that it were so simple...


Have you ever noticed how, as you get older, things don’t stick like they used to? People’s names for instance. And places. Oh, and things…

One of the many ways in which my memory has been tested of late is in the learning and recalling of Latin names. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a fair number under my belt – most of the important ones, I like to think – which to be honest I count as something of an achievement, especially when you consider that I’m a career changer and by the time I got around to studying horticulture, my weary brain was reluctant to take on more cargo, let alone a new language. That said, these days I seem to need something of a run-up vis-à-vis the old binomials.

Luckily there are certain strategies one can employ to oil the cogs, many of which I have shamelessly exploited over the years to help the Latin go down.

While I was studying for my RHS exams, I volunteered at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion Garden. To facilitate my learning, head gardener Robert and I would sing plant names to one another in the form of light operetta. ‘Symphoricaaaaarpos,’ he would intone in a rich baritone from the Regency shrubberies. ‘Saaaaarcococka hookeriaaaaaana,’ I would reply in a faltering descant. God only knows what the assembled drunks thought of our taxonomic arias, but it seemed to help and for me, to this day, there are certain plants – mainly eighteenth-century in origin – that can only be summoned by song.

At NT Nymans, where I was also volunteering, one of my gardening colleagues suggested we try word associations. It worked for her she told me.

‘Take perilla, for example, it’s purple and it’s kind of hairy. So, the way I remember it is I think to myself, “Purple gorilla – perilla” – see, easy. You try!’

I wasn’t convinced, but she seemed very keen. ‘Okay, give me something you’re struggling with right now,’ she said.

‘Flowering plants,’ I replied, ‘and most of the non-flowering ones too. Oh, and trees!’

‘Can you narrow it down a bit?’ she asked, not unreasonably.

I looked around and settled on a giant conifer on the brow of a slope, gazing out across the High Weald. You look like a solid, no-fuss sort of a chap, I thought to myself, you’ll do.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides,’ she said.

So much for that game.

Thankfully, there are other horticultural aide memoirs at hand. For example:

Try dreaming up catchy little narratives that trigger cognitive responses. Persicaria amplexicaulis, for instance, springs easily to mind with the snappy refrain: ‘Percy is a carer who has a rather ample ex who never calls’. Ornithogalum adseptentrionesvergentulum, on the other hand, will require a short essay, so perhaps best left well alone.


Try assigning a plant name to each of your loved ones and refuse to address them by any other moniker until a.) said name has sunk in or b.) said loved one disowns you, whichever comes first.


If things are proving particularly sticky, you could always start with the rude names first. These have the advantage of being both tremendously amusing and highly memorable. Silybum mariana, for instance, or the subtly profane Erica canaliculata or the ever-reliable Rubus cockburnianus. (There’s a whole subset of plant names ending in anus that I can’t recommend highly enough if you have a free moment.)

Stalling for time is another solid ruse. At work we have a handy get-out clause for those tricky moments when the horticultural muse refuses to play ball. ‘I know that one,’ we say, confidently, ‘really, I do, I just haven’t committed it to memory yet.’ Impregnable logic, I think you’ll agree.

If none of this helps, as a very last resort one can always knuckle down and try to understand the Latin. Of course, this was the advice of my college tutor all along. She told us that the only way to truly get to grips with the binomial system was to sit and do the homework. And that if we did, we would begin to appreciate that beneath its apparent complexity lies a perfectly rational system; one that can impart detailed information about the plant in question – its shape, its form, its colour, even the name of the person who first discovered it. At the time, this was something of a revelation. These weren’t just random, needlessly convoluted tongue-twisters we were grappling with; they actually meant something.

Some were obvious: giganteus, horizontalis, americanus, fragrantissimus… These I could work with. Contortus and prostratus, glaucus and albus – yes, yes, yes… But all too often, these unwieldy ciphers remained enigmatic at best, downright opaque at worst. I mean, what is one to do with Leucospermum hypophyllocarpodendron exactly?

If I were in charge of naming things – and wouldn’t that be a great gig! – I’d make sure we knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into from the get-go.

For example: Euphorbia avodii x cozitspreadslikecrazii. Now, that would be useful.

Or Rosus thorniusbastardus. Again, direct, informative, unambiguous.

Or Gladiolus waytooblowsyforitsowngoodius.

I could go on…

Then, of course there’s the thorny (spinosus) issue of the ‘botany police’. Call me old-fashioned but I thought that once one had wrestled a specific plant name into a convenient cubbyhole in one’s bulging data banks, after all the mnemonics and operatics and cognitive feng-shui, after all this effort, that would be that. No such luck. Because just when you think you’ve got your selected combination of genus and species safely locked down, they – and you know who you are – go and move the bloody goalposts. Aster to symphiotrichum. Eupatorium to eutrochium. Sedum to hylotelephium. Rosemary to salvia, for goodness sake!

Of course, they’ll argue that it’s to do with new genetic evidence or redefined evolutionary relationships, but if you ask me, they do it on purpose, just to upset me ... and you ... because, well because they can, because quite frankly it’s all some fiendish plot dreamed up by them – the clever scientists – to keep us – the humble gardeners – in our place, to blind us with … well with science really.

Okay, I know, I know, in truth Latin nomenclature serves us well. It is a ‘dead language’, immune to change (in theory), which means that it not only transcends linguistic borders but also sidesteps the chaos wrought by multiple pileups of conflicting common names.

All true. But you must admit that there is little romance in the Latin name, little mystique.

In contrast, common names positively swoon with the stuff: baby’s breath, lady’s mantle, feverfew, sneeze weed, Star of Bethlehem, bee balm, false goat’s beard, goose foot. Born of myth and poetry, these earthy appellations conjure vivid pictures of a wilder, more resilient Nature than ours, a long-lost ecology replete with honeyed meadows and thrumming hedgerows. Imagine Wordsworth’s ode to the humble daffodil reconfigured for a post-Linnean world in which our wandering bard falls upon a host of Narcissisus pseudo-narcissus subsp. ‘Lobularis’. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

When all is said and done, whether I can summon a name on a sixpence or am left juggling with a clumsy configuration of syllables makes no odds to the plant itself. It carries on growing regardless, budding and blooming and doing its thing, and inadvertently delighting me in the process. So I’m not going to beat myself up about it. If I get my subcaulescens mixed up with my suffrutescens every now and then, so be it. If I trip over an errant plumbaginoides or lose track of the odd obtusifolius, well, I can live with that. Maybe for some it’s an effortless case of See it, Say it, Sorted. Well, good for them. For the rest of us mere mortals, drifting listlessly towards senescence, all I can say is, Would that it were so simple

Picture credit: Edward Lear


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