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Botanical names and their meanings


Introduction: History of Botanical Latin


As the late Professor William T. Stearn succinctly puts it in the Introduction to his monumental “Botanical Latin” (1992a): “Botanical Latin is best described as a modern Romance language of special technical application, derived from Renaissance Latin with much plundering of ancient Greek, mainly since 1700 and primarily through the work of Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), to serve as an international medium for the scientific naming of plants in all their vast numbers and manifold diversity”.

The classical Latin language and its alphabet originated from Latium, a small tribal region in central Italy with Rome as the capital, but it has had a chequered history right from the start. Firstly, there is reasonable certainty it was not the original dialect of the ancient Romans, but evolved relatively rapidly from a combination of external influences:- (a) absorption of dialects of other tribes, mainly to the north of the Latium area, who were subjugated by the Romans during the 4th century BC; and (b) an alphabet adapted from tribal predecessors of the Romans, the Etruscans, who peopled the area in central Italy, Etruria (a region mostly including modern Tuscany), who previously had acquired it from the Greeks. Further significant modification occurred when, during the 3rd century BC, the Romans invaded the then group of Greek colonies, Magna Graecia, on the southern Italian peninsula and Sicily, where for the first time Latin came directly under Greek cultural influence. From this, the vocabulary and grammar went through a profound transformation at the hands of writers such as Cicero, Ovid, Pliny, Vergil and the Caesars and, after considerable further modification over the next 1000-odd years, led to the New Latin of science we see today.

However, in parallel to this Latin of classical authors, orators and poets, there was evolving a colloquial vernacular, the idiom spoken (but rarely written) by the common people: public servants, slaves, soldiers, traders, farmers, etc. in their everyday life throughout the provinces of the Empire (Bodmer 1944, Elcock 1960); from this vernacular there developed what has become referred to as Vulgar Latin. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rising influence of Christianity, the various regions started to develop individual dialects of Vulgar Latin, which began to assert themselves in literature and over a lengthy period evolved into the modern Romance languages: Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Provençal, French, Italian, and Rumanian (Brown 1956).

Relevant to the subject of plants, however, among the first writers of classical Greek and Roman times were (1) the Greek pupil of Aristotle, Theophrastus (370–287 BC.)(“Enquiry into Plants” and “History of Plants”), credited with founding the scientific study of botany; (2) Gaius Plinius Secundus, Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD)(“Natural History”, 13 volumes of which were on botany alone!); and (3) the Greek physician Pedanios Dioscorides (c. 40–90 AD), whose great herbal in Greek describing some 600 plants he later translated into Latin as “De Materia Medica”.

There followed various modifications to the erudite written word of the classical authors, the changes no doubt somewhat influenced by the colloquial Vulgar Latin. During the late Middle Ages (in its narrow sense spanning roughly the 11th–15th centuries AD), like most writers on natural history of the day, the European herbalists used Mediaeval Latin, derived from the classical, as a medium for exchange of botanical information, while basing much of their writings on (often grossly misinterpreted) works from classical writers such as those noted above. Concurrently, as previously mentioned, variations of Vulgar Latin were gradually differentiating into the modern European Romance languages.

The rise of the Italian Renaissance during the 14th century, with its cultural and scientific re-awakening, initiated a new round of major change and expansion of Mediaeval Latin culminating, especially during the 18th–20th centuries, in the modern, specialized New Latin we have today. The basic motivation for these last changes has been the discovery of many new plants and their (often microscopic) parts, requiring adoption of thousands of original Latin and Greek words. Creation of much of the new terminology was achieved by applying the simple device of assigning many of them new and technologically precise (but more-or-less analogous) meanings, meanings which in a botanical context would have been largely unintelligible to the original classical and mediaeval users; e.g.: calyx, “shell”; corolla, “garland”; stigma, “point”, “mark” or “brand”; etc.

From all this developmental modification, botanical taxonomy has acquired a vast and valuable literary legacy. As Stearn mentions (loc.cit. p.9), original descriptions/diagnoses in Latin now exceed 400,000, and there are many standard monographic and floristic works in Latin containing comprehensive botanical information. Of these, Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum (1753) and Genera Plantarum(5th edn 1754), are, of course, the starting points of modern botanical nomenclature. Other major ones include Kunth’s Nova Genera et Species Plantarum(1816–25) and Bentham & Hooker’s Genera Plantarum (1862–3). Multi-authored works include De Candolle’s Prodromus systematis naturalis regni vegetabilis (1824–69) and Monographiae Phanerogamarum(1878–93), andEngler’s Das Pflanzenreich (1900–). For Australia, particularly, should be mentioned Robert Brown’s Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae(1810) and Ferdinand von Mueller’s Fragmenta Phytographiae Australiae(1858–82).

 The ability to read botanical Latin has thus become virtually essential for plant taxonomists. A modest ability to write in it is also necessary for purposes of valid publication of new plant names, where a Latin diagnosis or description has been obligatory since January 1935 (see McNeill et al. (2006), ICBN, Art. 36.1). Thus the advantage to taxonomists of being able to understand botanical Latin is clear; but there exist other benefits, perhaps less obvious. For example, as William Stearn points out (loc .cit., p. 12): “The care needed to draw up a description in Latin is often in itself an aid to exact description in the writer’s mother tongue...”. Indeed, although not obligatory for new taxa (the minimum requirement is adequate Latin diagnoses), the ICBN recommends (Art. 36A.1) that an author, as well as providing diagnoses, should also publish full Latin descriptions, in addition to those in the language of the paper or monograph. Stearn goes on to stress the additional benefit to botanists of adapting, for their own use, drafted Latin descriptions by their skilled predecessors. Another, associated purpose where a knowledge of Latin/Greek terminology etc. can be useful is the coining of generic and epithet names for new taxa.


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Botany terminology meaning :


  • adventitious roots
  • anemophily
  • angiosperm
  • annua
  • anther
  • apical meristem
  • axil
  • blade
  • bract
  • cotyledon
  • epiphyte
  • flower
  • fruit
  • grain
  • guard cells
  • gymnosperm
  • herb
  • meristem
  • mycorrhizae
  • node
  • ovary
  • ovule
  • perennial
  • petal
  • phloem
  • pistil
  • pollen
  • pollen tube
  • pollination
  • rhizome
  • root
  • secondary growth
  • sepal
  • shoot
  • stamen
  • stigma
  • stomata
  • thalloid
  • tree
  • tuber
  • turgor pressure
  • vegetative growth
  • venation
  • whorl
  • wood
  • xylem

    Glossary of plants terms meaning and definition




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