A while back when a fellow gardener called to ask the significance of Latin names of plants, I found myself fumbling for an answer even though Botany was my major in college. Evidently, associating plants with their Latin names has become somewhat of a second nature to me, and therefore cannot easily relate the classroom knowledge to everyday gardening where common names are easy to work with and communicate.
Nevertheless, while often long and hard to pronounce, Latin names provide the plant world a universal identification system, a language not lost in translation. Furthermore, though Latin names do not necessarily indicate the characteristics of a plant, some distinctly do, making plant nomenclature an interesting, sometimes even a funny subject; for example, the desert rose, Adenium obesum grown as a houseplant around here, tends to be - as the name implies- on the obese side because the stem is swollen at the base. Likewise, plants having the word “alba” in the name bear white flowers, “roseus” indicating rosy pink, and “foetidus” implying stinking flowers or foliage, thus highlighting a plant’s attributes. Speaking of which, since the flowers of night jasmine open at night, the plant dare not go by any name other than Cestrum nocturnum, assuring the nocturnal habit of the plant.
Looking for a plant with edible fruits? Then Passiflora edulis is the one for you; on other hand, some might like to stay away from Dracunculus vulgaris, commonly known as the dragon arum as the flowers of this plant are rather indecent-looking. Interestingly, some names such Camellia japonica indicate the country of origin of the plant, which in this case is indeed Japan in addition to China and Korea.
Latin names, therefore, not only distinguish one plant from the other, but reveal some distinctive features as well; so if shopping for a Daphne, an evergreen small shrub, and would like to be certain that the flowers are fragrant, then look for the one called Daphne odora!