Epithet Lesson

One of the best aspects of learning comes when you are able apply lessons learned to things near and dear. I was able to do this in one of the first lessons in my landscape design class.  The assignment: learn the meaning of many of the epithets – the second word that adds some sort of descriptor to the first (genus) botanical name.  Cool … I always wanted to be better versed in botanical names.  So I headed for my stack of plant magazines, then my notebook of info about the plants in my own gardens, and started my list.

Easy enough, right?  Not so fast.

The other parts of the lesson included researching specific epithets, listing each and its meaning, then identifying a botanical name using each chosen epithet to describe a characteristic of the plant  – think rugosa (meaning wrinkled) as in Rosa rugosa, a rose with wrinkled leaves – advised the lesson’s example.  But, the lesson required forgetting about epithets that signify the discoverer of the plant or its country of origin – like Myrica pennsylvanica (Northern bayberry).  Much too easy.

sage-1 11-22-09 Many epithets and their definitions came with the lesson materials, so those seeking an easier way to complete the lesson could just work off the list when finding actual plants that use those epithets.  Epithets like album (white), nigra (black), elatus (tall), and glaucus (grey or blue-grey leaves or blooms) were all included, as were officinalis (used medicinally).  So were I to take the road easiest traveled, I could have easily forged onward with a list that only included things like my numerous varieties of sage which all fall under the Salvia officinalis botanical name.

But I like a challenge, so I sought out epithets not included on the list.  Did you know alnifolia, as in my Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet) pictured at the right means having leaves like an alder? summersweet-Clethra alnifolia 10-2009 I didn’t.

How ‘bout the meaning of eurybracteata, as in the golden-flowered Mahonia eurybracteata?  It comes from eu, meaning well, properly; and bracteata, meaning gold-leaf.

The tulipifera part of Liriodendron tulipifera means tulip or turban bearing.

Papyrifera, as in Betula papyrifera, means – you guessed it – paper, which describes the paper-like bark of the birch tree.

On the other hand – or would that be the other leaf? – saccharum, (sugar), helps describe the sugar maple (botanical name Acer saccharum).

However, in the 40 or so names required for this assignment I did end up with two favorites:

· Heterolepsis from heteros (different) and lepsis (scale, shell).  The grass, Sporobolus heterolepsis, has leaves that turn a golden color and fragrant flowers (setting it off – different or hetero -  from other grasses) and seed heads resembling tiny shells – lepsis.  I want to grow this grass!

· Glyptostroboides from glyptostrob (sculptured, carved) and oides (like, resembles). Can one argue that Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood) is sculptured in shape?

My research was definitely aided by two websites,  Dictionary of Botanical Epithets and Words by William Whitaker, both of which are now  permanently bookmarked on my Internet Explorer Favorites list.  And, as always, I use Fine Gardening’s pronunciation guide to botanical Latin when I find my tongue too tied to figure out pronunciation without a little guidance.

If you are interested in doing some independent online research of your own, try these sites … could be a fun way to pass a snowy winter weekend day.  Imagine cuddling in front of a fireplace – preferably one containing a warm, crackling fire – sipping a cup of cocoa, or maybe a glass of red wine, and nibbling  a chunk of Asiago cheese and a few good crackers while you thumb through a stack of plant and seed catalogues making your ‘want’ list.  Just think how you could wow your friends or enhance your crossword puzzle knowledge if you took the extra steps to jot down the botanical names and head for your computer for a little stretch the brain exercise.  Why you could become a veritable plant guru … or, more likely, you’re just another plant nut like me.

8 comments for “Epithet Lesson

  1. December 3, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    What a fun post – I’m always trying to figure out the meanings of botanical names. I appreciate the resource websites you gave.

  2. December 4, 2009 at 12:20 am


    How very informative. As a horticulturist, I use botanical names often. I enjoyed learning the reasons certain plants have the botanical names they have.

  3. December 4, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Very informative post. I used few of these links and they were wonderful. thanks for sharing

  4. December 4, 2009 at 9:51 am

    Joene, This is a fabulous post. I love learning the meanings of latinate plant names, and you introduced me to some new ones. I also love the fact that you’re sharing some of the lessons from your landscape design class with the rest of us. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!

  5. joenesgarden
    December 4, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Thanks Deb, Noelle, Muhammad, and Jean … I really enjoyed completing the assignment. There’s always something new to learn!

  6. December 7, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    I am a gardener, too, and really admire the way you decided to master all these complicated names. Bravo!

  7. joenesgarden
    December 7, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Thanks, Alexandra. It’s good to stretch one’s brain.

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