It’s Latin, but it’s all Greek to me

For some reason, many gardeners, whether novice or old hands, have a mental block when it comes to botanical (or Latin) names. Let me try to remove the mystery.

It’s really not that complicated, and these plant names are used for very good reasons. In different parts of the country – and indeed the globe – we have all developed our pet names for our favourite plants. We all know what we mean, but if I went into a garden centre in another area and asked for a Bourtree Bush, or Lammy’s Lugs, I wonder what I would be offered? Now if I asked for a Sambucus nigra, or a Stachys lanata

But the main reason for getting to grips with a few basics is simply that the botanical name can tell you so much.

For example, you’re searching the garden centre for a dwarf conifer for your rockery. You’re faced with an array of colours, shapes and sizes. And there, in their pots, they all look pretty small. So which is going to stay that way, and which is the triffid?

The clue is in the name. “Nana” means dwarf or small (eg Picea glauca nana). So does “minima” (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana minima). “Repanda” and “Procumbens” both mean prostrate or ground-covering (Juniperus procumbens; Juniperus communis repanda).

Or you’re browsing the nursery catalogue looking for foliage colour. Something that ain’t just green would be nice. Same approach. Check the names. “Aurea” or “Aureum” means golden. “Purpurea” or “Atropurpurea” means purple or copper-coloured.

And so it goes on. If you’ve read this far, you must be a potential convert. So here’s your reward.

A brief list of some commonly found Latin names!


Alba: white
Argentea: silver
Aurea: gold
Glauca: bluish-white or bluish-grey
Incana: grey
Lutea: yellow
Nigra: black
Purpurea: purple
Rubra: red
Rubrifolia: with red foliage
Viridis: green

Albomarginata: leaves edged with white
Aureomarginata: leaves edged with gold

Variegata: with variegated foliage

Leaf/flower features

Crenata: leaves shallow-toothed or scalloped
Floribunda: producing many flowers
Foetida: smelly!
Laciniata: with deeply cut leaves
Plumosa: feathery foliage
Semperflorens: with a long flowering period
Stellata: star shaped

Shape and form

Adpressus/prostrata/repanda: ground-hugging
Compacta: small, neat, compact
Fastigiata: upright
Nana: small, dwarf
Pendula/tristis: weeping

Origins (helps you guess how hardy they are!)

Chinensis/sinensis: from China
Hibernica: from Ireland
Hispanica: from Spain
Japonica: from Japan
Koreana: from Korea
Lusitanica: from Portugal
Occidentalis: originating in the west
Orientalis: originating in the east
Scotica: from Scotland (must be a good buy, then!)

Using botanical names is not about trying to be clever, or being elitist. It is simply about being universally understood.

Spellcheck RIP.