I wouldn’t say that I’m great at Latin, but I know the basics, as I took a year’s worth of Latin over the summer at The University of Melbourne as an intensive course so that I could get the extra credits I wanted so I could let my hair down a little during the semester (which in hindsight was a great choice, considering the strain that online learning put on me). My rudimentary grasp on Latin has helped me better understand, remember and correctly the names of plants and other plant-related vocabulary. Here, I’ll be sharing the basics and a few fun tidbits.
Latin nouns can be split into five declensions. Plant names derived from Latin tend to follow the form of the first two of the five declensions, meaning that they tend to end in ‘a’, ‘us’ or ‘um’.
In general, plant names that end in an a are feminine, the ones that end in us are masculine, and the ones that end in um are neutral in gender. This affects the pronouns with which we refer to our plants. For example, I technically should refer to ficus plants with male pronouns and monstera plants with female pronouns. However, I don’t think anyone really follows these rules, because we can call our houseplants whatever pronouns we get from their vibes, or just not gendering them at all because it’s foolish to apply human conceptions of gender onto our houseplants. Moreover, the genus name and the species name aren’t always the same gender, so it can be hard to know how to gender your houseplants if you only follow the Latin. For example, Ficus is masculine, and elastica is feminine. I guess it’s just another reason to go with the flow and not be a snob about the Latin, I guess.
If we’re being completely formal, any plant names that end in a should be pluralised with an ae at the end. For example, tetrasperma becomes tetraspermae in plural. Plant names that end in us should end in an i in plural form (eg. Quercus should become Querci), and plant names that end in um should end in an a in plural form (eg. Syngonium should become Syngonia). I remember when I first started this blog, I used these rules to pluralise plant names, but I ended up stopping because it felt overly formal or even a little pretentious. However, these rules do apply to the word ‘variegatum’. A friend asked me what the difference between variegata and variegatum is, and the simple answer is just that variegata refers to more than one plant and variegatum is used when referring to a single plant.
Of course, there are also Greek names thrown into the mix, so some names don’t follow these rules, even if the names sound like they’d be in latin based on the name alone. For example, Scindapsus is actually a Greek name meaning “like ivy”, but pictus is actually Latin, meaning coloured or decorated.
The fun thing about Latin names is that they give some room for interpretation. For example, Monstera is generally thought to have come from the Latin word monstrum, meaning monster, because of their unusual leaves. However, if this was the case, why not just name the genus Monstrum? I wouldn’t describe them as monstrous, and I don’t think we should think that way about any houseplant. For this reason, I like to think that it comes from one of the verbal noun forms of the Latin word monstrare, meaning ‘to show’ because fenestrations Monsteras are so showy and interesting to look at.