How do you say that plant name?

Will that be cotton-easter or co-ton-ee-as-ter?

Pronunciation is often a large barrier that must be overcome before gardeners feel comfortable when using botanical names. The names are fine to read and recognize but some of them just defy logical spelling and pronunciation in an English language way of thinking. Long convoluted combinations of syllables are hard enough to cope with, but to have to pronounce them also is often asking too much. Botanical names often add another twist by having Latin, Greek or French word origins. For example, the dawn redwood is a magnificent tree with graceful, soft needles but it has a very challenging botanical name of Metasequoia glyptostroboides. The name comes from Greek origins. “Meta” meaning “with or sharing” and “Sequoia”, the tree to which it is related. “Glypto” means “to carve” in Greek and “strobilos” means a cone. The plant has depressions in its cone that look like it was carved. Knowing the origin of a name and its meaning can help gardeners to relate to botanical names and become more comfortable with using them.

Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus)

Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus)

We can blame Carolus Linnaeus for our botanical Latin woes. He was the Swedish naturalist who came up with the idea for our modern system of naming plants in 1753. Previous to this date, plants were named without any standardized rules. Often their names contained a series of descriptions that may have extended ten words long. As more and more plants were discovered, Linnaeus realized how impractical this system was becoming. Linnaeus championed for a binomial (two word) naming system to identify plants. He identified the first word as a broad grouping of related plants (called genera) and the second word, which narrowed down the group, was more specific to the plant (called species). Every plant in his binomial system has a unique name.

During the eighteenth century, when Linnaeus was studying, comparing, and writing 180 books on plants or animals, Latin was the most widely used language of scientific scholars. Hence plants at the time were named using a language that was based on the Middle Ages and Renaissance-era. Many other languages can also be found in the origins of plant names. Next to Latin, the Greek language has had the most influence, followed by French and some Italian language derivatives, in forming plant names. No wonder there’s not any one standard for pronunciation. Many other plant names were formed in honour of a person or place. Consequently anyone today trying to translate botanical names using a classical Roman Latin background usually finds it a difficult task.


Since so many different languages have been used to give plant names, it is hard to determine one correct standard for pronunciation. In some cases it depends on which kind of Latin is used. The choices are the reformed academic pronunciation accepted by classical scholars or the traditional English pronunciation. With few rules to pronunciation there are many opinions and lots of possibilities without a definitive final answer. Many people also look upon Latin as a written language that is not generally spoken. If Latin isn’t a spoken language who decides which is the correct way to say a name?

There are a few guidelines to pronouncing botanical names that have been developed over time. Plant names that are made up of two syllables have the emphasis on the first syllable. An example of this is the edible fig that is called Ficus. Using this rule, the first syllable is highlighted and pronounced with a long “i” as in eye.

For plant names that are more than two syllables, the emphasis changes depending on whether syllables are long or short. If the next to last syllable is long then the emphasis is on that syllable. For example bego’nia has a long second to last syllable and that one is stressed. For plant names that have a short second to last syllable, the emphasis is on the third to last syllable. An example of this is flo’ ri dus (meaning of Florida). The emphasis is never placed on any syllable closer then third from the end. So flabelliformis (meaning fan shaped) is a multi-syllable name that has a long “o” which must have the emphasis.

Clivia miniata

Clivia miniata

The hardest plant names to decide on a correct pronunciation are those that have origins with someone’s name. Is Clivia (for the noble family of Clive) pronounced clivia with a short “i” like hive or long “e” like cleave? Most plant names that contain a person’s name are usually straightforward to pronounce. A word of advice is to not expand on what is present. Some are as simple as pronouncing the person’s name, followed by ee (long “e”) + eye. For example, Blue Oak is Quercus douglasii, pronounced Quer-cus douglas-ee-eye. This tree has been named after David Douglas, a Scottish plant hunter who discovered many exciting plants while visiting the west coast of North American and Hawaii. The two “i’s” at the end of a name are always pronounced ee-eye.

One good trick to correctly pronounce plant names is to say every vowel (or letter). One great example is the lovely Bougainvillea (boo-gain-ville-ee-ah). The name even sounds nice. This plant was named after Lois Antoine de Bougainville, a sailor and explorer.
Usually plant names with “ch” are pronounced hard. One example is Chamaecyparis (kam-eh-sip-air-us). “Ch” can also be pronounced as a hard “k” in Chaenomeles (key-nom-el-es) or Brachycome. Plant names with “oe” are particularly troublesome. Sometimes they are pronounced “ee”  as in bee for Oenothera while other times they are pronounced as “oi” in toil as in Koeleria.

With so many plant names being derived from non-Latin sources, there are plenty that deviate from region to region in their pronunciation. How do you say Gypsophila (Baby’s Breath)? Some people say Gyp-sof-e-la with the accent on “sof” and the other half say Gyp-so-fee-la with the accent on the “fee”. The debate continues on which way is the correct pronunciation for this popular perennial plant.

Cotoneaster frigidus, the tree cotoneaster

Cotoneaster frigidus, the tree cotoneaster

In general people like to pronounce botanical names as if they were their own language. Cotoneaster is one example of when this should not be done. The uninitiated might start by saying this name as cotton-easter that breaks the plant name into two known words. Unfortunately this breaks one of the pronunciation rules mentioned above. The emphasis cannot be on the first part of this five-syllable name. Instead it is pronounced co-ton-ee-as-ter with the accent on the “ee” in the middle.


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