Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Botanical pronunciations

I'm one of those people that tries to use the botanical names of plants.  I also know many of the common names for my plants, but many of my plants are not widely grown and therefore have not been given common names.  Anyway, I'm not writing this post to debate the merits of either common or botanical naming systems.  I'm simply going to talk about pronouncing the botanical names.  Pronouncing common names is almost always easy, since they are just a collection of English words with which most people are already familiar.

However, many botanical names you have seen but never heard.  And since they are usually Latin-based, it is often hard to know how to pronounce them.  I have been embarrassed on a couple of occasions when I pronounced something very different from someone at the greenhouse (also at the aquarium store).  In one case, I was new to the aquarium hobby and had just been reading about a bunch of different fish I might want to put in my first aquarium.  My wife and I had been referring to the ever-so-common algae-eating fish Plecostomus as "ple-coh-STOH-moos."  The correct pronunciation is actually "pleh-CAH-steh-muss," which flows off the tongue so much more easily.

After some of my embarrassing pronunciation encounters, I got to thinking that I wasn't necessarily wrong.  The worker might have been sitting at home thinking how embarrassed they were that a customer had pronounced the name correctly and they had always pronounced it differently.  This definitely wasn't the case for Plecostomus, but it might be in some other situations.  If we don't use the names in converstation with others, how are we ever to know the correct way of saying the names?  Don't you worry - I did some research and found some good sources for correct pronunciations of botanical names.

Many online dictionaries have a little sound graphic next to the word you just looked up that will actually have a 2 or 3 second sound bite of someone saying the word.  And nearly all of the dictionaries will have the written pronunciation.  The drawback to using online dictionaries is that many botanical names are not listed in these dictionaries.

One place that you can almost always find your plant listed is on Dave's Garden.  Dave's Garden includes a written pronunciation of all genera and most species names.

Here are some specific names that I found on Dave's Garden:

  • Heuchera (HEW-ker-uh) - genus of the popular shade plants "Coral Bells"

  • Clematis (KLEM-uh-tis or kli-MAT-is) - genus of very popular flowering, climbing perennial vines hear it

  • Liriope (luh-RYE-uh-pee) - genus of common ground covers, sometimes called "Lily Turf" or "Monkey Grass" hear it

  • Rudbeckia (rud-BEK-ee-a) - genus which contains "Black-Eyed Susans" and other perennial wildflowers hear it

  • Gaillardia (gay-LAR-dee-uh) - genus of common wildflowers sometimes referred to as "Indian Blanket"

  • Echinacea (ek-in-AY-shee-a) - genus which contains the common coneflowers hear it

  • Ipomoea (ip-oh-MEE-a) - genus which contains both the popular "Morning Glories" and ornamental "Sweet Potato Vines," as well as some other plants I enjoy growing "Cypress Vine" and "Spanish Flag"

  • Chlorophytum (kloh-roh-FY-tum) - genus which contains "Spider Plants," "Airplant Plants"

  • Justicia (jus-TEE-see-ah) - genus which includes the "Shrimp Plants"

  • Chamaedorea (ky-mee-DOR-ee-uh) - genus of palms, some of which are kept as houseplants - including the "Neanthe Bella Palm" and "Parlor Palm"

  • Phalaenopsis (fay-lay-NOP-sis) - genus that contains the most commonly seen orchids, referred to as "Moth Orchids" hear it

  • Ctenanthe (TEE-nan-thee) - a rare genus and favorite of mine from the prayer plant family

  • Calathea (ka-LAY-thee-uh) - a common genus from the prayer plant family

  • Stromanthe (stroh-MAN-thee) - a rare genus from the prayer plant family

  • Araceae (a-RAY-see-ee) - the family commonly referred to as "Aroids"

  • Rhaphidophora (ra-fid-OH-for-a) - a genus in the Aroid family

One quick observation: I'm noticing that the "ch" combination is almost always pronounced as a "k" in plant genera.  There are exceptions to every rule, but the "k" sounds seems to be the standard.  It's easy for me to use the "k" sound for names like Chlorophytum, but I want to use the "ch" sound for names like Heuchera.

I've had to make the most adjustments for Ctenanthe (I was trying to incorporate the leading "C" into the name) and Liriope (which I was pronouncing "leer-EE-ope").  I like the true pronunciation of Liriope much better than what I was saying.

The pronunciation with the most controversy that I encountered is Rudbeckia.  There were two sound bites for this name.  One sounds like "red-BEK-ee-a" and the other sounds like "RUDE-bek-ee-a."  I was really surprised by the "red" beginning to the one sound bite.  Additionally, I ran across a sign at a local nursery that said this name is easy to remember by memorizing the phrase "Susan has a black eye because rude Becky hit her."  (The "Black-Eyed Susan" species is R. hirta.)  The Dave's Garden pronunciation is a little different from all of these other options.  Good luck with that one!

Are there any plant names you've always wondered how to say?


  1. I'm horrible with botanical pronunciations which is why I was thrilled when I found this link:

    It SAYS it for you! I have a permanent link to it on my blog and use it all the time!

  2. Zach, thank you for this post! There are very few plant names that I pronounce correctly. It was cool to listen to the names!

  3. Like many, for years I shyed away from attempting to pronounce scientific names. A few years ago, I attended a seminar called Demystifying the Scientic Names offered by Harvard Aboretum. I learned many paradigms of pronunciation exist, but none are necessarily correct in that no governing body, including the International Botanical Congress exists that has authority over standardized pronunciation. I don't mean to be a party pooper, but no pronunciation is more correct than another, at least in the U.S. I believe Europe does have a body that provide guidelines for standardization of pronunciations. But, if you really check any of the resources referred to here in this post, you'll learn they have no authority in the matter.