Annie Calovich

February 3, 2012

More mysteries in the gardening world: weather and vocabulary

When it comes to nature, put me in the camp of the more we know about, it the less we know.

When it comes to nature, put me in the camp of the more we know about, it the less we know.

Sometimes you just need to acknowledge the mystery and call it good. Usually, very good.

Somebody asked me last week, after the new plant-hardiness map was released, whether we could now plant earlier in the spring than before.

The question was a good one. But I told the gardener that we’d still have to keep our eye on the forecast. For all that history tells us of the way our weather has been, it couldn’t predict that we’d have four days of 60-plus-degree weather the last week of January and the first week of February.

But we still have to have a date to aim toward when starting seeds; we have to have a frame of probability within which to work.

The National Weather Service gives April 11 as a rough estimate of the last frost. The actual date of the last frost can vary dramatically from year to year, said Jeff Nakowski of the weather service. It can land in March; it can land in May. I think this is a sign to watch the forecast and do the best you can. If you’re sowing seeds indoors, guide your starting time toward the April 11 date.

Our hunches, based on the weather so far this “winter,” may tell us that the last frost will come earlier. It also has people already wondering about what kind of summer we could possibly have after last year’s barn-burner. Jeff said it was too early to speculate about that.

So, we may know more, but it doesn’t seem like we know much.

Last week I wrote briefly about a change in international rules about the naming of new plants. It used to be that Latin was required, but now English is allowed.

That may seem to make the names of plants more understandable. But that’s not necessarily the case, according to a Washington Post story.

“The new chatter is in chemicals and molecules,” Laurence Dorr, one of three Latinists in the Smithsonian Institution’s botany department, is quoted as saying in the story.

What a downer.

When I asked readers for their favorite plant names, one man had them at the ready, in Latin and English.

“Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Dawn redwood) in Latin,” he said. That’s met-a-se-KWOY-a glip-to-stro-BOY-dez.

“Blue Muffin viburnum and Pinky Winky hydrangea in English.”

Now that’s the kind of chatter I like.

The Post reported that when James Miller, vice president for science at the New York Botanical Garden, published the discovery of a small tropical tree called Cordia koemarae, he had to write a Latin description that ran to 100 words and included: “Folia persistentia; laminae anisophyllae, foliis majoribus ellipticis.” Roughly translated: The tree hangs on to its leaves, which vary by size. The bigger leaf blades are elliptical.

Miller thinks relaxing the Latin rule, “along with another measure allowing species to be published in electronic journals alone, will remove bottlenecks in the process of getting new flora out there,” the Post said.

Roy Gereau, a researcher at the Missouri Botanical Garden, opposes the rule. He said the Latin requirement served an important role in preserving the link to botany’s academic past, going back to the Renaissance, the Post said, continuing:

“On a practical level, the rule was an obstacle to fraud, he said. The Latin requirement helped prevent the naming of bogus species because scientist-translators such as himself acted as gatekeepers, Gereau said. ‘When you think of the size of the trade in orchids or bromeliads, if you can name a new species and offer it for sale, you can make a … lot of money’ from eager collectors and breeders.”

The Post goes on to say:

“The wry joke is that even with the diminished role of Latin, the argot used by English-speaking botanists might as well be Latin. In describing flower parts, they speak of ‘the corolla tubular with spreading lobes.’ The familiar thick green leaf of the magnolia is described in one encyclopedia as ‘elliptic to ovate or subglobose, obtuse to short-acuminate, base attenuate, rounded or cuneate, stiffly coraceous.’

“As botanists increasingly seek to deconstruct organisms at the microscopic level and through DNA sequencing, the vernacular descriptions become even more opaque, said Alain Touwaide, a researcher and Latinist at the Smithsonian who would translate for botanists.

“Keeping the Latin description, he argued, would ironically make it more understandable. ‘To make these notions understood, you have to create Latin words that have an etymological root that renders the word self-explainable,’ he said. The further loss of Latin ‘is a pity.’ ”

Connecting plant roots with etymological roots is one of those mysteries before which I stand in awe. I hope many botanists still cleave to the Latin.

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