The scientific names of plants can be very daunting – a strange, unspoken language that we often reject as far too difficult. But with a little explanation they become interesting and very informative. More often than not the generic name is of Greek origin and the specific name from Latin. Take for example the Cheesewood which is found growing in the hotel gardens. The scientific name is Pittosporum viridiflorum. Notice first that the name is written in italics and that the surname or genus name is written first, with the specific name or species coming second, written with no capital letter. Pittosporum is derived from the Greek pitta meaning resin; and spora, a seed. This describes the seed which has a resinous coating. The specific name viridiflorum is of Latin derivation and refers to the greenish coloured flowers. In Latin viride = green; and flora are flowers, thus green flowers. So not so terrifying after all!

Sagewood, a tree very common around the Cavern goes by the scientific name of Buddleja salviifolia. The genus Buddleja (pronounced bud-lia) is widespread and many of the popular garden varieties come from China. Buddlejas are often the chosen food plant of butterflies, so planting them will encourage these lovely creatures into your garden. The specific name salviifolia means “with a leaf like a salvia or sage”, very descriptive of the thick, greyish-green leaf; the Latin folium = a leaf. Then there is Rhus dentata, which has very obvious teeth on the leaf margin, the specific name being derived from the Latin for tooth. Think of the words dentist and denture, all referring to teeth from the same Latin derivation.

The two common Yellowwoods in the forest and garden have rather strange common names which do not tell you anything about the tree itself. There is the “Real Yellowwood” – that does not tell me anything about the tree at all; but the scientific name is Podocarpus latifolius and the specific name tells us at once that this is the Yellowwood with the broad leaves; from the Latin for leaf and the prefix lati- meaning broad. The other Yellowwood is the Outeniqua Yellowwood (again not a good descriptive common name) with the scientific name Podocarpus falcatus. The leaves are not broad and are slightly sickle-shaped or “falcate”, so now we can easily separate these two tree species.

Not all the tree names have a classical background. Sometimes explorers and collectors named plants for their benefactor or best friend. One such is the beautiful Mountain Bottlebrush, Greyia sutherlandii. Nothing Greek or Latin here, simply a Mr Grey and a Mr Sutherland who were very important in the life of the guy who first found and named this tree. You will see however that the English names have been made to fit into the scientific mould with the addition of –ia in the generic name and –ii in the specific name. We know it was Mr Sutherland and not Mrs because a specific name called for a woman would have the suffix –ae, as in Aloe barberiae.

So next time you come across a scientific name, don’t just shudder and turn away; it might tell you much more about the tree than the common name!
by Sally Johnson

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