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When classifying plants in Latin, don’t forget about gender

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In my previous column about botanical Latin, I seemed to indicate that Swedish doctor Carl Linnaeus had immediately established the binomial nomenclature. 

This is not completely correct. While recognizing both genus and species, his entries for species initially did not consist of only a single word. They were descriptive, and therefore wordy. 

Linnaeus added single words as margin notations, and these evolved into the one-word epithet we use today.

Now we should speak of the epithets themselves. While genera are single words, the species designation is the genus name paired with a one-word epithet. It does not stand alone as a single word, and if so used would be a mistake. 

Part of the reason for that is many epithets are reused. For example, I recently did an column on sugar-producing plants, one of which is sugar cane, Saccharum officinalis. “Officinalis” is Latin for “medicinal,” and there are many medicinal plants with the epithet of “officinalis.” (Just a reminder that while we use sugar as a sweetener, the ancients used it medicinally). A quick search of plant epithets turned up 49 more plants with the “officinalis” designation.

Why did Latin become the language of international communication? As Rome conquered most of the western world and Mediterranean countries, they allowed conquered peoples to maintain their own languages. However, Latin and Greek were widely used throughout the empire. 

With the fall of the Romans, Latin evolved as languages do, but continued to be used as a common language of science, administration, law, and was integral to the Catholic Church in the form of Ecclesiastical Latin. 

Since it was the language of scholarship, many botanical writings mentioned previously were written in Latin.

English is an unusual language in several regards, but particularly so in that words do not have gender. This is not the case with many other languages, including Latin. 

So the first hurdle we had to deal with was the need to recognize the importance of gender in following the rules of botanical Latin. And gender in Latin, as in other gendered languages, has no logical rules. Therefore, you need to recognize gender endings and a number of special cases when learning botanical nomenclature.

Genus names derived from Latin that end in “-us” are masculine. Words ending in “-a” are feminine, and those ending in “-um” are neutral. The epithet will follow those endings since the genus ending determines the epithet ending and must agree with genus gender. 

Therefore, the Latin root “purpure” — meaning “purple” — will yield Ceanothus purpureus (a masculine plant), Echinacea purpurea (a feminine plant) and Eupatorium pupureum (a neutral-gender plant).

Simple, right? Not so fast. Many genus names are derived from the Greek, which has different endings defining masculine, feminine and neutral.  For example while “-a” is a feminine ending, so are “–ago,” “-e” and “-is” to name a few. 

Note, however, the epithet endings use the Latin endings to agree with words of Greek. For example, Solidago albopilosa (white hair goldenrod), which you can already see is a feminine plant name.

Then there are genus names chosen to honor botanists or others. For example, there is a genus with 179 entries called Banksia in honor of Sir Joseph Banks. You will notice that Sir Joseph was a man, but with the “-a” ending of Banksia, the nomenclature is feminine, and all the epithets have feminine endings. 

Sir Joseph went on Cook’s first voyage around the world, bringing many botanical specimens of plants unknown in Europe back to England. He later became the king’s first advisor at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew (London), and sent other explorers on plant-collecting missions around the world.

Just to confuse matters a bit more, there are epithets that are governed by an independent set of rules. There are epithets that remain the same for all genders. There are epithets that are really nouns, and reference a person. 

In the latter case the epithet will agree with the gender of the person referenced. So Lonicera henryi refers to August Henry a (male) botanist from Ireland, whereas Ponthieva brittoniae refers to Elizabeth Knight Britton, a noted bryologist (her husband was the founding director of the New York Botanical Garden), who has many plants named in her honor.

And all trees are feminine, except for Acer (maple) which is neutral. (Yes of course, there are some other exceptions).

If you want to read a bit more on the subject of botanical Latin and hear a podcast from my instructor Jennifer Bakshi, go to tinyurl.com/JoeGardener.

 

Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at greenscenesura@gmail.com.

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