Don't Say Bush 

Latin lessons in hortspeak

Would it have ended better had Latin class preceded geometry? Doubtful. In one sorry semester, I declined from an A+ dedicated and disciplined student to an unfocused, inattentive and disorderly underachiever who couldn't have anticipated a twilight curiosity about arithmetic and dead languages.

On the accelerated track to which I had been assigned, for reasons my counselors surely doubted, I was in fast math. Algebra 1, in 7th grade, was fun. Then, in 8th grade geometry, a broad-shouldered football player took the seat in front of me and I was transformed. When I commenced classical Latin in 9th grade, and first saw the Anglophile dandy instructor, I was already Coeda losta. He admired my ingenuity on essay exams about books I hadn't read, but neither of us called me a scholar. (Nota bene: Anglophile. We shall return to it later.)

I inadvertently learned enough classical Latin then to help me with botanical Latin now. There are rules, but one is as likely to use them as to say "Pythagorean" over beers. Pronunciation is so capricious that it reminds me of the dizziness I felt when I stood up too fast in geometry.

Let us begin with the pine family. In nomenclature, the thrilling word for labels we use in hortspeak, we usually say the genus, sometimes the species, and, depending on the assemblage, often the common name. When I was selling trees, I had folks come in and ask for a pine tree. It took only a couple of weeks for me to understand that they were referring to all conifers. (Those are plants that produce cones for seed dispersal. We can discuss gymnosperms and angiosperms another time, but only if you beg and I study.)

My ears are quick and acute, but my mouth, for better or for worse, is quicker. My pronunciation skills may have saved my bacon in Latin. I rarely had a clue what it meant, but I said it right. Do you say "Semper Fie-as-in-lie dell-as-in-laptop liss-as-in-kiss?" Of course not. You say "Semper Fee-day-lease." The character "i" in Latin usually has an "ee" sound. However, anyone who comes to the nursery and asks to see a "Pinus strobus," pronounced as Augustus and Julius did, is promptly shown to the gate, where the cops are waiting.

I believe this is the single reason why botanical Latin is pronounced differently than classical Latin. So, all the experts in binomial taxonomy are saying every plant name the same, right? Wrong. Horticulture, a wonderful monthly publication encompassing more information than even my pre-geometry self might have assimilated, includes a pronunciation guide at the back. Herein we are informed that Weigela, a lovely shrub named after a German whose name was Vie-gull, is actually "Wye-gee-luh" as in whiz, rather than geezer. Not particularly snobbish about most terminology, the exceptions to be noted in a subsequent paragraph, I nodded agreeably when a darling young bride asked to see the "wiggly-uhs." I knew what she meant.

People adopt some rather irrational pronunciation habits. Most common is a tendency to tack a "yuh" or "shuh" on a word that ends with the letter "a." Aubrieta becomes "awe-bree-shuh"; Delosperma becomes "delosperm-yuh" and lavender, in its cap and gown, is "lav-an-dool-yuh." In my promised return to the Latin don, one who is attracted to the English or Anglo culture is said to be an Anglophile. The condition of -philia, appended as a suffix, denotes a pronounced fascination. So one might assume that adding "yuh" to Gypsophila, or baby's breath, indicates an extraordinary fondness for legendary dark-skinned itinerants in flamboyant wagons.

Classical Latin would have us planting "say-dumb" rather than "see-dumb". For that matter, were we to install a flat of sedums, we should refer to "say-duh." Foolishly confident in my resurrected intellect, I volunteered in a recent ethnobotany course the species name for a western white pine. "Monty-cola!" In a patient and gentle rebuke that returned me to geometry and Isosceles' nightmare, my professor corrected, "moan-tee'-co-luh." Luh rhymes with duh.

There are but a few terms about which I'm stubborn, and they aren't even Latin. Dirt and soil, for example, are two very different things. Soil is lovely, important, vital, complex. Dirt is a fact of life on par with election fraud and rhinoviruses. A weed is a specimen in a place where it's not cultivated. The word that is most abrasive to my sensibilities is "bush." In a discussion of plant types, whether related to wetlands, climate change, wildlife habitat, commerce or intelligent landscape designs, the misfortune of common names such as smokebush or burning bush notwithstanding, please say "shrub." Don't say "bush."

Linda Jarsky is an advanced master gardener, certified arborist and landscape designer, and marketing director for DG Nursery and Turf.

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