The Gardener’s Botanical: Book Review

When I was in middle school and advised I needed to choose a language I choose Latin. I was led to understand that if I wanted to pursue the study of biology that Latin would help me understand the roots, prefixes and suffixes of words.  Latin is used for many scientific names. The Gardener’s Botanical contains definitions of more than 5,000 plant names which help unlock the secrets of botanical Latin.

When I first got the book, I scrolled immediately to carnivorous plant names which I new the meanings of, to check the book’s validity. 

  • Spathulatus – spatulate, with a broader, flattened end. As in Drosera spatulata, the spoon-leaved sundew
  • Spectabilis – spectacular, showy. As in Nepenthes spectabilis, a red speckled pitcher and red stripes on the peristome.
  • Sanguineus – blood-red. As in Nepenthes sanguinea the large and vigorous Nepenthes pitcher plant species that has blood-red pitchers. 

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They were all correct! This book —from abbreviatus (“shortened”) to zonatus (“with bands”)—will help you understand why Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) to present day scientists name and classify many plant species. The book also contains over 350 color illustrations which I am always supportive of as it an astonishing skill. (Check out these amazing artists.)

According to the press release scientific plant names are an invaluable tool for those who understand them. Formed from Greek and, more commonly, from Latin root words, not only do they make it possible for gardeners and botanists to communicate, they also contain a wealth of hidden information. Linnaeus choose Latin because it is a ‘dead’ language. No one speaks it today and therefore it is equal to people in Russia, Egypt and the US. Extant languages change. Take for example the word peruse. The original definition meant to read thoroughly or with great care. And today it means to skim or to browse.

Carl Linnaeus system was successful because he created two names for all living things. This helped reduce misunderstanding. For example, since many carnivorous plants eat flies, people in different parts of the world, with different languages, may be confused when discussing fly traps. But when people refer to a plant as Dionaea muscipula, they can be sure they are referencing the same plant. The other reason why Linnaeus’s system worked so well was that he grouped organisms by similarities and not just differences. Linnaean taxonomy, or scientific classification as it is known today, uses a hierarchy. The Kingdom level contains organisms that are grouped very broadly. They have some similarities, but a lot of differences. The genus and species levels are much narrower and are closely related. When reviewing plants or deciding what plants to add to your collection it is important to research them based on their scientific name to make sure you are studying the right plant.

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The Gardener’s Botanical is a beautiful encyclopedia with a pronunciation guide, definition, example plant, for each word. The origin of the word is also sometimes provided, as some scientific names are the Latinized form of the people who discovered them (like Sarracenia named after the Father of Canadian Botany, Michel Sarrazin and Veitchii named after a member of the nurseryman of the famous Veitch nurseries).

In addition to the 5,000 entries, the book also includes a guide of using Latin, why botanical Latin is used for plant names, a brief history of botanical art, how the study of DNA is changing plant names, and practical uses of botanical Latin. A great attribute of this book is the ledger on the right side of the book, which helps you know where in the alphabet you are. Anyone, like me, who has to start with the entire alphabet to know which comes first f or g, or s or t will find the ledger efficient. The built in bookmark is also great. 

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The Gardener’s Botanical comes out in a few weeks and I highly recommend it as a thorough reference encyclopedia.

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Hardcover: 352 pages

Publisher: Princeton University Press (February 25, 2020)

Dimensions: 8.7 x 1.2 x 11.2 inches

To learn about growing your own food check out my book “99½ Homesteading Poems: A backyard guide to raising creatures, building features, growing opportunity and cultivating community” which is on sale now.

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