Botanical Lesson of the Month - Plant Colors

Botanical Latin, a formalized system of Binomial Nomenclature, which often includes bits of Ancient Greek is one of those elusive, intimidating and often daunting elements of horticulture. It is far easier to memorize, and understand, common names. However, plants often have so many regional and local common names, as well as varying names by language, that things can quickly get confusing. For the most part, Botanical Latin names(s) for a plant don’t change over time. This means anyone from anywhere on the planet can learn and use Botanical Latin internationally.  they are nevertheless the most accurate name and, usually provide key identification within the name. To make your journey into Latin names more palatable, it is worth learning in piecemeal. Once you know a handful of Latin words, you can start to understand plants better. And, yes, it does get easier over time. Latin names are made up of two names, the first being the genus and second being the species. A genus is a group within which several genetically similar but still different species exist. A species name often describes qualities (flower color, scent, size of plant leaf etc.…) of a plant. Even humans have a Latin name – Homo sapiens whereby “Homo” means Man and “sapiens” means Wise.

Plant color can also be described by the Latin species name. For example, Festuca glauca is the botanical name for Blue Fescue. The Latin “glaucus” means Blue-Grey. Below is a small list of color named in Latin:

  • Black – niger E.g.

  • Blue – azureus, caerulea (bright blue), cyanus (clear or cyan blue) g., Penstemon azureus, Passiflora caerulea, Centaurea cyanus

  • Brown – ferrugineus (rusty brown), fuscus (darkly/blackish brown), testaceus (terracotta red/brown) E.g., Digitalis ferruginea, Cyprus fuscus, Carex Testacea

  • Green – atrovirens (dark green), chloro (clear green), virens (verdant green), viridis green) E.g., Thuja plicata ‘Atrovirens’, Helleborus viridis, Santolina virens

  • Gold & Orange – aurantiacus (orange), aureus (Golden-colored), aureola (orange or yellow), chryso (golden) E.g., Mimulus aurantiacus, Senecio aureus

  • Purple – atropururea (dark purple), purpurascens (purplish), violacea (violet-colored) E.g., Salvia officinalis ‘Purpuracens’

  • Red – cardinalis (cardinal red), coccineus (deep carmine red), erythro (red), flammeus (flame colored), igneus (fiery red), puniceus (purple red), rhodo (simply red), rosea (rose-like or pinky), rubra (red), sanguineus (blood red), rubiginosus (rusty) E.g., Rosa rubiginosa

  • Silver & Grey – argenteus (shiny silver), cannescens (whitish grey), cinereus (ash-grey)

There are many sources for learning Botanical Latin. The above book is a great resource and can be found online or can be ordered through bookstores or libraries. For more information on plant Latin colors, see A Beginners Guide to Understanding Botanical Latin - Colors