A few weeks ago I received a gift of garden books, including an unassuming but incredibly useful pamphlet for the Latin-impaired. Entitled New Pronouncing Dictionary of Plant Names, it's an A to Z guide to plant names and botanical terms, with definitions. Many people would have immediately tucked this item away on a shelf for future reference. I, on the other hand, read it - not cover to cover, perhaps, but large chunks of it. I like words.
This little book is full of surprises - who knew the letter E could be so interesting? In all my years of perusing garden catalogues, I had never given any thought to the connection between Echinacea (coneflower) and Echinops (globe thistle). Then I read that Echinatus means "prickly" or "bristly" and it hit me: both plants have rather obvious bristly features (the coneflower's center and the globe thistle's leaves).
But wait, there's more. It turns out that echinus means sea urchin in Greek. I discovered that on Botanary, the next stop after my curiosity outran the 62 pages of my pronouncing dictionary.
Right about now you are probably thinking, "It's January and this cooped up gardener is losing her mind." Not at all. I am just very left-brain. It's inherited.
My father loved words. His idea of a fun read was the Oxford English Dictionary, though he also enjoyed dictionaries in Greek, Latin, and a bunch of other languages dead and alive. If we asked him what a word meant, he would invariably respond, "Look it up" - that's what all those dictionaries were for, right? But he couldn't resist throwing in the etymology, whether we asked for it or not; you would be astonished at how frequently the term "cognate" cropped up during my childhood.
Although he had no interest in gardening (or nature, or actually being outside), he probably could have told you more than you wanted to know about the botanical names of every plant in my mother's garden, had he ever been inclined to flip through one of her catalogues. He had read pretty much everything that had ever been written about anything, and remembered it well enough to explain it, even decades later. We found it very annoying.
That was then, this is now. What was eye-roll-inducing at 15 is simply fascinating in my 50s, when I suddenly feel an urge to learn Greek and Latin cognates. It is too late to learn from my father - isn't bad timing at the root of most of life's little ironies? - so I will have to do it on my own. Or, as my father liked to say, "Look it up."
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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