The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Highlighting the rules of botanic name pronunciations

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Last week I wrote about botanical language; those weird-looking, odd-sounding scientific names for plants. By paying attention to botanic names we have a guarantee of receiving the plants we purchase, can talk internationally about plants, and perhaps get a hint of a plant's characteristics. Common names fall short on exactness. Some plants have more than 15 common names plus some common names, for instance Black-eyed Susan and Brown-eyed Betty, are shared by multiple plants.

Pronunciation of botanic names is the real scary part, but it's similar to learning any new language. The first few times you say them you will stumble and stammer and feel like a kindergartener. That's ok; we have all been there. As scary as it may seem you will never be comfortable with botanic names until you start saying them out loud. Ok, it doesn't require an audience. Say them in your car, or in the shower. Recite them to your dog. Just say them and eventually you will discover there is poetry in the language of plants.

So how do you pronounce these strange names? First realize even the experts do not agree exactly on how to pronounce names. Even though the names are based on Latin, many Latinized words have been added. There are a few basic rules. However, as in the English language, rules are often broken.

First item is determining which syllable is accented. If there are two syllables in the word, the first syllable is stressed as in HOS-ta. If a word has more than two syllables, usually the second to the last syllable is stressed as in Liatris pronounced lie-A-tris.

There are no free loaders in botanic names. Usually every letter, vowel, and dipthong is pronounced. The "e" at the end of names is not silent as it is in English. It is pronounced as a long "e" such as Silene is pronounced sy-LEE-nee. The letters that are exceptions to the silent rule are words starting with Cn, Gn, Mn, Ps, and Pt. The first letter is silent and thank goodness or our tongues would surely be tied. For example Pseudotsuga is pronounced sue-do-SUE-ga. We find "pseudo" in a number of English words as in pseudonym.

The letter "J" sometimes sounds like "Y". For example the genus of arborvitae, Thuja, is pronounced THU-ya. The letter "X" at beginning of a name is pronounced like "Z" as in zebra. For example Xanthium is pronounced zan-thee-um.

Dipthongs are not worn on the beach but are two vowels pronounced as one but often differently depending on the speaker. Common dipthongs include:

Ae (as in meet) with the botanic name for flowering quince Chaenomeles pronounced as kee-no-MAY-leez (also kie-no-MAY-leez). Also "au" (as in awful) with Caudatus pronounced as caw-DAY-tus. Eu (as in neutral) with Deutzia pronounced as DOO-zee-uh (also DOYTZ-ee-uh).

Most botanic names, particularly the second part of the name, offer a description of the plant. It is often something that makes this plant stand apart from others in the same genus. Many names refer to similar colors in English. For example albus or alba for white as in Quercus alba, White Oak. Rubra for red as in Quercus rubra, Red Oak. Or red might also be described with cardinalis as in Lobelia cardinalis, Cardinal Flower. Or the name could refer to sizes as in micro or minimus for small; or grandis, giganteus, or maximus for large.

Websites, CDs, and books are available to help with pronunciations and descriptors. Or hang out in horticulture circles and listen to plant geeks.

When we see a new English word we sound it out as best we can by using our past experience with other English words. It's the same with botanic names. It will get easier as you get more familiar with the language of plants.

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