Book Review: Latin for Gardeners

Book Review 4 – Latin for Gardeners 

I thought I’d approach this book review a little differently. For those who struggle with the botanical names for plants, I’m going to give you some suggestions for useful books and provide some comparisons to help you decide which one (or ones) you might want to acquire.  

A Portable Latin for Gardeners: More than 1500 Essential Plant Names and the Secrets They Contain 

By James Armitage 

  • Publisher: ‎ University of Chicago Press, 2017 
  • Paperback‏:‎ 160 pages 
  • ISBN-10: ‏ 9780226455365 
  • Dimensions: 7.7” X 5.7” 
  • Price: $23.27 (; $18.00 ( 


Latin for Gardeners: Over 3,000 Plant Names Explained and Explored 

By Lorraine Harrison 

  • Publisher: ‎ University of Chicago Press, 2012 
  • Paperback‏:‎ 224 pages 
  • ISBN-10: 022600919X 
  • Dimensions: 6.4” X 9.1” 
  • Price: $31.94 (; $25.00 ( – hardcover 

Either of these books would be a great addition to your library. Although written by different authors 5 years apart, they were both published by University of Chicago Press and so they are very similar in content and layout. 

Of the two, I prefer the second one, even though it’s a bit pricier. Not only does it contain twice as many terms, but it is hardcover and comes with a ribbon attached to the spine that can be used as a bookmark. The Portable Latin also has a built-in bookmarker, but it is an elastic attached to the back cover that, although it does the job, is not as easy to use. It is a very sturdy cover, for a paperback, and seems very well constructed and durable. 

Both books are beautifully illustrated with artistic renderings of plants, and the larger Latin for Gardeners also contains one- and two-page inserts throughout that highlight various genera of plants (20 of them), discuss the people who hunted for and discovered plants (10 of them), and other, assorted “Plant Themes” (7 of them). It also has a number of ¼ page inserts, titled Latin in Action, that include a drawing of a plant and discuss some of its attributes or how it can be used in the garden. 

The terms listed in Latin for Gardeners are listed in alphabetic order, from “a-“ (used in compound words to denote without or contrary to) to “zonatus” (with bands, often colored, as in Cryptanthus zonatus). The Portable Latin breaks the book down into sections based on the characteristics the terms refer to, then lists the terms in alphabetic order within each section. This necessitates the use of an index to find words, but it also makes for a much more interesting read, and in some ways, more educational and informative. 

The sections in A Portable Latin are “Color”, “Plant Form”, “Features of Plants”, “Comparisons”, “Places and People”, and “Ideas, Associations, and Properties”. Within each of these categories are subcategories. For example, the section “Color” is further divided into “Light Colors” (e.g. albiflorus, albiflora, albiflorum With white flowers, as in Buddleja albiflora), “Bright Colors” (e.g. fucatus, fucata, fucatum Painted; dyed, as in Crocosmia fucata) and “Dark Colors and Multicolors” (e.g. purpurascens Becoming purple, as in Clianthus purpurascens). 

Both books will help you better understand the botanical names that we often struggle with. And even though 3,000 terms seems like a lot, there are many terms I encounter regularly when working with native plants that don’t show up in either book, such as oolentangiense (as in Symphyotrichum oolentangiense, Sky Blue Aster) or prinoides (as in Quercus prinoides, Dwarf Chinquapin Oak). 

A similar book that just arrived in the mail this week (I found a good used copy online through Thrift Books in the US for under $8) is  

A Gardener’s Handbook of Plant Names: Their Meanings and Origins 

By A. W. Smith 

  • Publisher: ‎ Dover Publications, 1997 (reprint of original 1963 version)  
  • Paperback‏:‎ 448 pages 
  • ISBN-10: 0486297152 
  • Dimensions: 5.4” X 8.54” 
  • Price: $25.12 (; $16.68 ( 

This book contains no pictures of any kind, but it has a lot more terms defined than the other two (alas, it doesn’t include oolentangiense or prinoides, either). In my research for this review, I couldn’t find out exactly how many terms, but it does include some other interesting things, as well. One of these is a table of 1800 common plant names and their corresponding botanical ones. Whereas the first two books only list terms that are used in the specific epithet (species name), this book also includes the terms used in the generic names (e.g. Asclepias for milkweed). It also gives a much more detailed description of how the Latinized words are used and pronounced for botanical names, and points out some of the exceptions that tend to throw us for a loop when we think we finally have it figured out.  

Any of these books would be useful, and it depends on what you are looking for. The artwork in the first two books make them wonderful books just to read through, but the dictionary-like structure of the third one, as well as the extra information contained within it, makes the third book a bit more practical.  

Or, you could do like I did, and get all three. 

Happy native plant gardening.