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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 10th February 2013

You wouldn’t think that BBC Radio4’s long-running programme, Gardeners’ Question Time (GQT), with its sedate pace and careful politeness would provoke even the mildest outbreak of rage but, last Friday’s edition succeeded.

In spite of its outsourcing to independent producers some years ago, the core of the show remains very much the same as it always was and it has resisted moving itself into the radio zeitgeist of the 2010s. Or almost, because there have been changes, of course, and it was one of these that stirred my emotion.

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus

In addition to taking questions from audience members, the programme now includes one or two listeners’ enquiries most weeks. ‘Participation’ is, of course, the holy grail of modern broadcasting and, it seems, the producers of GQT fear the audience will no longer accept that its role is to listen to the output rather than help in creating it.

On Friday, the listener’s question concerned plant naming. It was a plea for panellists to stop using Latin names for plants and stick to the English names that ‘everyone understands’. As the chairman noted, the matter of plant naming is a regular topic. One of the earliest entries to this blog is on the subject after Alan Titchmarsh demonstrated a form of reverse snobbery by suggesting that ‘real folk’ can’t be doing with fancy foreign names.

The panel, politely (this was GQT after all) dismissed the correspondent’s point and said that there was a need for the use of Latin names in many instances.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

That’s what got me screaming.

Latin names.

I had hoped that the panel’s answer to the question would have pointed out that plants have botanical names not Latin names. They did not, leaving the notion that the definitive naming of plants is somehow elitist and anyone using them is just a show-off.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if plants had Latin names but they don’t. The names may be Latinised but, in a great many instances, the origin of the name has nothing to do with Latin and is relatively modern rather coming from thousands of years ago. The supposed age of plant names is another one of the blocks to more widespread use of botanical naming.

I thought I’d dip into the A to Z section of this website to find a few, randomly selected, examples of how non-Latin the botanical names of plants often are. I should begin with the caveat that the derivation of plant names is often obscure and best guess is all that can be achieved.

Clematis vitalba, old man's beard

Clematis vitalba, old man's beard

Take the Delphinium genus. ‘Best guess’ is that the name comes from the Greek word for ‘dolphin’ because someone thought there was something about the plant that resembled that creature. Though that may be wrong, it illustrates that many botanical names originate in Greek. Many are much easier to spot.

Clematis is from the Greek ‘klēma’ meaning ‘shoot’ or ‘twig’ and, thus, identifying the genus as spreading plants and climbers. The ‘Rhus’ of Rhus radicans, poison ivy, likely comes from the Greek ‘reo’ meaning ‘to flow’ another way of indicating a spreading nature.

Greek is not the only language used as the basis for botanical names. Datura is believed to derive from the Sanskrit ‘dhattūrāh’ and the 'Catha' in Catha edulis, qat or khat, is simply the Latinised version of the Yemeni word ‘qat’.

Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb

Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb

Sometimes, the idea that plant names are Latin leads to a misunderstanding of the origin. Take rhubarb, the Rheum genus. It is said that the name comes from the Latin for rheumatism because the plant is a useful treatment for that painful condition but, in fact, it is from the Greek ‘Rheon barbaron’ meaning ‘from the barbarous lands of Rha’, the Greek name for the Volga River; home of rhubarb.

There are plenty of examples of places of origin becoming the plant name. Colchicum is from Colchis, the region in what is now Georgia and one possible derivation of Aconitum is that the name comes from the village of Akonai which was in modern day Turkey. 

It is not just other languages that provide the root for plant names. Many are named in tribute to botanists and explorers who first brought them to European attention or for mythical figures associated with them. Brugmansia is from Sebald Justin Brugmans, 1763-1819, a Dutch professor of natural history. Camellia is named for Father Georg Josef Kamel (1661-1706) who, in 1704, published an account of the plants of the Phillipines where he was a Jesuit missionary. He used the nom de plume ‘Camellus’.The name Daphne comes from the Greek myth that Daphne appealed to Aphrodite to save her from a lustful god so she was turned into a tree.

Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

Artemisia is said to be named for Artemis, the Greek goddess of chastity and childbirth, or, according to Pliny, for Artemisia, wife of Mausolus, but gives no reason for this other than that ambitious powerful people were keen to have plants named for them.

So, Latin names for plants are not and I am very disappointed that professional gardeners don’t try and dispel that false belief by consistently referring to botanical names.

There is nothing special about botanical names to justify the fear of them. It would seem very odd if teachers referred to pupils in their classes as ‘girl12’ or ‘boy16’ because learning ‘foreign’ words like Joanne or Isaac or Kimberley was accepted as being too difficult.

And there would be endless confusion if people only spoke about ‘family cars’ because the presence of foreign derived words in ‘Ford Mondeo’ and ‘Vauxhall Astra’ made them impossible to learn.

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