Gardening With Tony
All Plants Should Speak Latin
By Tony Tomeo
Jul 1, 2012 - 7:10:58 AM

BEVERLY HILLSAs confusing as they seem to be, Latin names of plants are actually intended to simplify things. They work because they are universal, everywhere and in all languages. Common names may seem simpler, but are too variable in different regions and in different languages.

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Neglect and minimal watering has not dissuaded these butterfly iris from happily blooming. The flowers would stand a bit higher and the foliage would be a bit greener with a bit more water.

For example, the white pine that is native to Northern California is not the same as the white pine of Maine. However, only the white pine of California is Pinus monticola. Furthermore, it is known as Pinus monticola everywhere and in every language, even though it has different common names in French, Afrikaans and Vietnamese.

The first name of a Latin name, which should be capitalized, is the more general 'genus' name. ('Genera' is plural, and not coincidentally similar to the word 'general'.) Pinus is the same genus name for all pines. Acer is the same genus name for all maples. Quercus is the same genus name for all oaks; and so on.

The second name of a Latin name is the more specific 'species' name. ('Specie' is plural, and not coincidentally similar to the word 'specific'.) Monticola specifies the genus of Pinus as Pinus monticola, the white pine of Northern California. Radiata specifies another genus of Pinus as Pinus radiata, the Monterey pine; and so on. The species name is not capitalized. Technically, Latin names, both genera and specie, should be italicized in print or underlined in cursive.

Latin names work like the names of cars. Buick, Chrysler and Mercury are all like genera. Electra, Imperial and Grand Marquis are all like specie, or the specific Buicks, Chryslers and Mercurys. 'Limited', 'Custom' and 'Brougham' are like variety names, like 'Variegata', 'Compacta', and 'Schwedleri'. For plants, variety names are capitalized and enclosed in semi-quotes.

As universal as Latin names should be, a few sometimes get changed. This can be confusing, and causes some plants to become known more commonly by either the new or old name as well as the other of the two names as a 'synonym'. For example, Dietes bicolor and Morea bicolor are the same plant; but not many know for certain which name is more correct. It is like when Datsun became Nissan, but was also known as Datsun for many years afterward.


Flower of the Week: Butterfly Iris

What was introduced as a seemingly fancier alternative to the common African iris is now almost as popular. Butterfly iris, Dietes bicolor (or Morea bicolor), is about as easy to grow, and nearly as resilient. Instead of white, the flowers are soft yellow with three prominent purplish brown spots with orange margins. The grassy evergreen leaves are a bit narrower and pliable.

Mature plants may get nearly three feet high and five feet wide. For those who do not mind digging and splitting apart the tough and densely matted rhizomes, large clumps are very conducive to propagation by division in autumn or winter. Deadheading (removal of stems that have finished blooming) promotes continued bloom and limits dispersion of seed that might otherwise grow new plants where they are not wanted. A bit of partial shade or minimal watering are probably nothing to worry about, but may inhibit bloom. Well exposed, well watered and well deadheaded butterfly iris should bloom from early spring until early winter.



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