Book Review: The A-Z of Plant Names

My reaction on receiving The A to Z of Plant Names by Allen J Coombes through the post from Timberpress was one of fascination and interest.  I always find the stories about how plants were found and by whom interesting so to see ‘Who discovered them’ etc on the cover really caught my attention.

I have spent a little time learning about how plant names are constructed so I have a very basic understanding but I did struggle to make the leap to the next stage where this book seems to sit.  The section on origin and meaning of plant names was very interesting, explaining that for example where chinensis is part of the plant name it probably comes from China. I found the section on how the epithet of the name – that’s the second word – is often an adjective and therefore being Latin has to follow the gender of the species interesting.  I must admit that I re-read this section many times and was completely bewildered although having just re-read it sentence by sentence I think I have cracked what the author is saying.  I suspect this is a case of the author being very familiar with his subject and not necessarily realising that he may need to take a step back when explaining what are to many quite complicated ideas.  I also think the book would benefit from a short section which breaks down plant families, explaining all about species and genera etc.

There is also a short section on Common Names and Name Changes explaining why the powers that be choose  to change the names we are familiar with.  I particularly liked the section on Pronunciation section, in this the  author observes that Latin is rarely spoken and that the best approach is to pronounce every vowel separately except when there are two vowels together which are pronounced as one. The example given is that Abies is pronounced as ab-ee-ayz not ay-beez.

The final section of the introduction is a list of common epithets and their meaning which is interesting and very helpful when you are reading about a plant in a book or catalogue and wondering what it may look like.  So ruber/rubra/rubrum (don’t forget the adjective follows the gender of the species!) means red and tortuosus/tortuosa/tortuosum means twisted.

The remainder of the book is a quick reference to some 4000 garden plants and it was at this point I became completely mystified.  I had read the ‘How to use this book’ section but still couldn’t decipher the first entry without a lot of referring back to the how to section.:

Abelia R. Br. (Linnaeccea) uh-bee-lee-uh. After Clarke Abel (1780-1826), British surgeon and naturalist who discovered and introduced A. chinensis. 5 spp shrubs. China, Japan

So this shows me how the pronounce the name and that the plant was named after a Mr Abel who had discovered it and when he lived.  But what is ‘R. Br’ – the how to use section says each entry has the species epithet followed by the author – is that the mysterious R Br and if so who are they. Sadly there is no list that I could find of what these various abbreviations stand for and I am now intrigued.

Anyway, this irritation aside it is quite fascinating to have a mooch through the book looking up plants you know.  I discovered that Delphinium got their name for the Greek for dolphin since each flower is supposed to resemble one.  Lobelia is named after Mathias de L’Obel a Flemish botanist (1538 – 1616) and it goes on. You can also discover from where plants originate and this is very useful in deciding if they might be hardy, half-hardy or tender.  So Canna originates from the Tropics and subtropical America so more than likely not very hardy in my UK garden.

I suspect I will use  this book from time to time but I think for it to appeal to a wider audience it needs some additions of basic background information on plant name structure and families.



9 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting to know this book is out there but I’m not sure that I’d buy it for my bookshelf – although it would be handy to have, particularly if I ever get round to doing a horticultural course! Lovely that you were given a copy, the best way to add it to the shelf.

  2. Lyn says:

    Good, honest review! R.Br. is the abbreviation for the Scottish botanist Robert Brown. I think it’s odd that the book doesn’t include a list of these abbreviations. It sounds like a bit more thought needed to be given in the planning for the book to be more useful (and less irritating!). I think plant names and their origins and meanings are interesting, but I’d only read a whole book about them if it was in a very clear and also entertaining style.

  3. Christina says:

    Living in Italy where Latin words are pronounced on a regular basic makes more sense of many plant names. However from your review this books seems to have many ommissions and defects. Not something for my bookshelf. A very basic understanding of Latin would give more imformation aabout plant names and their derivation and meaning. Intersesting fact (maybe) in Italy, what in the English speaking world is described as the Latin name is known as the scientific name – possibily more accurate but who am I to say. Christina

  4. Holleygarden says:

    I love to know about where plant names originated, and have often thought of taking a class on Latin so I would be able to piece some of the botanical names together! I think this book would be a great reference book, especially on the pronunciation part!

  5. Marie says:

    This is a great book for those who plan on taking their horticulture very seriously. I think this is one of those must have books if you are a gardener that really wants to know more about your plants. There is so much you can learn behind a plant’s name. And given that there are so many names of plants out there, it would be nice to know a thing or two behind the naming conventions used in different plants.

  6. Interesting to read your review Helen. A good copy-editor should have picked up that some abbreviations weren’t listed, and if you have to re-read a section over and over, it wasn’t written well in the first place. I’d love to read more about how names for plants came about and it sounds to me that I’m going to have to wait until a book comes along that has been better written & edited. Nice of you to do the hard work for us on this one!

  7. Ordered this as it is a start for me even with the irritations as you describe them…as Holley says a good reference book.

  8. Anna says:

    A most thorough and thoughtful review Helen. Think that I will stick with my little black book
    ‘Plant Names Simplified’ by AT Johnson and HA Smith – takes less room in the bookcase from the looks of it 🙂

  9. I go to They don’t cover ALL my South African plants, but they are constantly adding plants. Those that are in, get a paragraph explaining the name – that utterly fascinates me! The plant equivalent of this great-aunt enquiring if you are the Shropshire or the London …

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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