Latin for Gardeners:
a Brief Pronunciation Guide

Phil Peters
Adams County Master Gardener

Did you ever pick up a seed package or gardening book and feel at a loss as to how to pronounce those scientific names? You are not alone. Even if you took Latin in school, the pronunciation used by specialists and botanists is very different. In fact, the pronunciation of these Latin names has been so Americanized that your old Latin teacher would never recognize them, to say nothing of Carolus Linnaeus who invented the system in the mid Seventeen Hundreds.

Knowing the Latin scientific name is the most accurate way to describe a particular plant. A special kind of scientist, called a taxonomist, has labored long and hard to make sure this name identifies only one single species of plant and that there can be no confusion with another plant. So, while the same plant may have different common names in different parts of the country, the scientific name is unique.

Fortunately, there are some general principles of pronunciation that will guide you in saying these long and seemingly unpronounceable names. In their publication, The American Gardener, the American Horticultural Society appends a pronunciation guide to plants named in that issue. And, just recently, the magazine Horticulture has done the same. I shall try to set some general guide lines based on the AHS pronunciation patterns, and I shall follow their style of rendering the pronunciation. The capitalized syllable is the accented syllable. Be aware that the following "rules" are greatly simplified and that there are exceptions.

First, there are NO silent syllables. What you see is what you say. In America the Latin names have been Americanized so that even the vowels are pronounced the way an American would naturally say them. So, if you follow your natural instincts, your pronunciation will be quite acceptable.

As far as consonants are concerned, pronounce them all and as you normally would. The letters c and g are pronounce as in cat and go when they precede the vowels a, o, and u. In front of e and i they are soft as in Cecil and gentle. The letters ch are usually pronounced like the letter k, except in the name Echeveria where they are pronounced as in the word etch.

Vowels are long in a stressed syllable, i.e., Acer – AY-ser; Pinus – PIE-nus; Verbena – ver-BEE-nuh. Otherwise they are short. Diphthongs (two vowels sounded as one) are pronounced as follows: ae sounds like ee (sometimes ay), au as aw in shawl, eu as u in hue, and oi as oy in boy.

Generally speaking, there are no silent syllables. All syllables are pronounced. There are as many syllables in a word as there are vowels or diphthongs. So if the word is particularly long, divide it into individual syllables, and pronounce each in turn. As an easy device to divide the word, try this. End each syllable in a vowel unless there are two consonants together after the vowel. In this case, split the consonants up. For example; Rudbeckia > rud-bec-ki-a, pronounced rood-BEK-ee-uh; or, Miscanthus sinensis > mis-can-thus si-nen-sis, pronounced miss-CAN-thus seye-NEN-siss.

Which syllable do we accent? Since most of the names derive from Latin, the rules for syllabification follow those of Latin. Since these can be a bit involved, we will simplify them where needed to be more useful for those who have not studied the language. In two-syllable words it is always the first syllable, i.e., Cornus = KOR-nus. In most other words stress the syllable BEFORE the last syllable, i.e., Clerodendrum quadriloculare = klay-ro-DEN-drum kwad-rih-lo-cue-LAR-ee. If the last syllable consists of two vowels or seems naturally short, stress the THIRD to last syllable, i.e., Buddleia = BUD-lee-uh, Campanula = kam-PA-nu-la.

Since Latin was a language with a lot of endings, and there are many common ones used in plant names, learning to pronounce some of the most common ones will go a long way to helping with an acceptable pronunciation. Look at the following list. The capitalized syllable is always stressed. If there is no capitalized syllable, the stress falls on the syllable BEFORE the ending.

  • acea, acia = AY-shee-uh; 

  • Echinacea = ek-in- AY-shee-uh;

  • purpurea = pur-PUR-ee-uh

  • are = AR-ee

  • vulgare = vul-GAR-ee

  • atum, -iatum, -ata = AY-tum, ee-AY-tum, -AY-tuh

  • perfoliatum = purr-fo-lee-AY-tum

  • ensis = EN-sis; pratensis = pruh-TEN-sis

  • ii, ei, yi = ee-eye

  • Buddleia davidii = BUD-lee-uh duh-VID-ee-eye

  • ianus = ee-AY-nus

  • virginianus = ver-gin-ee-AY-nus

  • iana = ee-AN-uh; virginiana = ver-gin-ee-AN-uh

  • icus = ih-kus; japonicus = jap-ON-ih-kus

  • iosum, -iosa – ee-OH-sum, ee-OH-suh; tormentosum = tor-men- TOH-sum

  • ius = ee-us; angustifolius = ahn-gus-tih-FOL-ee-us

  • oides = OY-deez; asteroides = as-ter-OY-deez

  • ua = yew-uh; decidua = dih-SID-yew-uh

  • uum = yew-um

  • annuum = ANN-yew-um

In addition to the gardening magazines noted above which offer a pronunciation guide, there are other resources available. Some bookstores or the library carry small dictionaries of botanical names and their pronunciation. There are also books on Latin for gardeners. For the computer enthusiast there are some garden CDs that pronounce the names, or go on-line to sites such as

True, your old high school Latin teacher might have conniptions hearing these pronunciations. However, with a little practice, the sounds will come naturally, and gardeners everywhere will envy your authoritative command of the terms. Just follow the adage: what you see is what you say.

Read other articles by Phil Peters