Green Scene

Watch your tongue: Botanical latin and plant classification


When I went to school, we had to take foreign languages. From elementary school through university, I have made stabs at several. However, while I have managed, I am not linguistically gifted.

As mentioned in previous columns, the New York Botanical Garden offers numerous courses relating to all things botanical. Flipping through catalogs over the years, I have noticed the course on “botanical Latin.” A chance conversation catalyzed my recent enrollment.

I was chatting with a staff member at the gardens whose husband is a Latin teacher who said that botanical Latin and classical Latin have very little in common. I simply couldn’t resist checking this out! 

After completing the course, I think her husband may be on to something. But along the way, I learned a great deal.

The issue that botanical Latin was created to deal with is, “How do we name plants so that everyone, everywhere — regardless of expertise — knows exactly what plant is being referenced in a discussion?” 

This is hardly a recent concern, but it was finally solved in the mid-1700s by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish doctor whose real love was plants. Historically, if you wanted to study plants, you had to study medicine. This is because doctors had to compound their own medications, and many of those were plant-derived, hence a working knowledge of botany was vital. 

Several years ago while visiting London, we stopped by the Chelsea Physic Garden.  Founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, it is home to 5,000 different medicinal, herbal, edible and useful plants, and is the oldest botanic garden in London. 

I was particularly fascinated by the garden area, where plants are grown based on the disease conditions they treat — like digestive problems, psychiatric conditions and dermatologic issues. In all, the various beds contain about 60 different plants, and it is worth remembering that a quarter of our present-day pharmacopeia is still derived from plants.

Certainly, the ancients were interested in plants. Pliny the Elder, who died in A.D. 79 in the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii, wrote “Naturalis Historia” (“Natural History”), a 37-volume treatise that covered economically and medicinally useful plants. He relied heavily on Theophrastus, a Greek disciple of Aristotle and author of “Historia Plantarum” and “On the Causes of Plants.” 

Due to his efforts to classify plants by their modes of generation, localities, sizes and uses, Linnaeus called Theophrastus “the father of botany.”

Before Linnaeus, there are two additional scientists of importance who paved the way for today’s botanical classification whom we should discuss. The first is Gaspard Bauhin, otherwise known as Caspar Bauhin, a Swiss botanist for whom the genus Bauhinia is named. In 1596, he wrote the “Phytopinax,” and in 1623 the “Illustrated Exposition of Plants.” 

While he used the accepted classification of plants into “trees,” “herbs,” “shrubs” and so on, he grouped plants into genera and species, and frequently used a one-word descriptive epithet to name species so that many of his 6,000 species had a two-word binomial designation.

The next scientist who figures in the developmental chain of the binomial classification is the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. In 1694 he published a book that followed the old system of classifying plants into herbs and trees and divided the 10,146 species in his book into 698 genera. 

His contribution to plant classification was to concentrate on describing the characteristics shared by members of a given genus. These descriptions, however, were wordy, and he did not describe the characteristics of the individual species. His system was widely adopted, and today there is even a Tournefort herbarium in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, which is kept according to his classification system.

But Tournefort refused to believe that plant had gender, that is to say that plant reproduction is based on pollen (male cells) fertilizing the ovule (female cell) to produce a seed with a resultant fruit. In all fairness, I remember how dumbfounded I was when I first learned that the birds and the bees operate in plants as well.

Linneaus, however, was convinced by the experiments of Rudolph Jacob Camerarius that plants had both gender and sex. Based on this understanding, he devised a system of classes and orders whereby the number and position of the stamens (pollen organs) determined the class, and the number and position of the pistils (female organs) determined the order.

And so, what about botanical Latin? We’ll have to continue that next time.

Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at