James Armitage is the Principal Botanist with the UK Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and has written a terrific book which goes a long way to demystifying Latin plant names. I had a great time being quizzed on sections of this book by a friend while we were away in the Grampians and I was pleasantly surprised at how many Latin terms I already knew and understood. For instance, alba meaning white, chrysanthus meaning gold – I even recognised that the word has a Greek rather than Latin root.
On a practical level the book has a plasticised cover and an elastic page holder on the back cover and its pages are glossy and robust, perhaps designed to be taken out to the local nursery or garden centre. It is divided into chapters based on the sorts of information the Latin name contains. Some such as Colour or Plant Form are obvious, others are less so, such as Places and People or Comparisons with animals or man-made objects for example. This makes sense when one thinks the easiest way to describe something unknown is often by comparing it a known object.
As the illustrations come from the RHS collection or are in the public domain, no botanical artist(s) is credited which is a shame as they are wonderful, illustrating precisely the characteristics Armitage wishes to focus on. They range from unidentified black and grey drawings to open a new chapter, to small, delicate drawings such as Erythronium dens-canis (dog’s tooth violet, page 74) tucked into the corner of a page, through to an entire page devoted to Platycodon grandiflorus (Balloon flower, page 45).
The author adds further, often quirky, information through coloured ‘Behind the Name’ text boxes which amply demonstrate that, at times, knowing the meaning of the Latin in the plant’s name still isn’t much help. For instance, vitellina means the colour of egg yolks but the orchid Encyclia vitellina is usually red and the egg yolk colour is found only in a small yellow centre. Similarly, one wonders how the orchid Lycasta cruenta, known as the blood-stained maxillaria, got either its Latin or common name until a closer look reveals a red patch on one of the petals.
While such seemingly minor details may be confusing to we novice gardeners, it is these differences which demonstrate the importance of using a universally accepted system to identify plants, particularly as new species are still being found. This book provides a useful, practical and attractive guide to the mysteries of scientific Latin nomenclature.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 9
Released by: Allen & Unwin
Release Date: March 2017