Intro to Botanical Names Part Two: Pronunciation
By Cynthia Welte
In the first blog article on botanical names, we looked at how plant names are constructed. Now … time to get brave and say them out loud!
A note on my phonetic spellings: the Æ or æ symbol is an “a” as it is pronounced in cat or Seattle. Accented syllables are in all caps. This isn’t in any way official but is how it makes sense to me.
Plant names stem from such a variety of origins that there are unfortunately no hard and fast rules that will apply to all pronunciations. Believe me, we all wish there were! I’m not out here trying to confuse or trick you; I promise.
A great place to start is by listening to others. We’ll all be happy to share our opinions. When that’s not possible and you’re reading a name, do your best to sound out each syllable one at a time. Practice a bit, then, as my old horticulture teacher used to tell us, “Say it with confidence!”
Sounding it Out
In general, ch is pronounced with a hard k sound. Chionodoxa is kee-ō-nō-DŌK-suh. A single c is either an s or a k sound, based on the letter directly after it, following the same rules as English. Doubled (cc), the sound is ks, as in Vaccinium, væk-SIHN-ee-uhm.
When unsure, pronounce the vowels as you would if you were speaking Spanish, Latin, or Japanese (a = ah like spa, e = eh like the sound in they, i = ee like speak, o = ō like goat, u = oo like moon). We all pronounce things a little differently and that’s ok. Whether you pronounce Campanula as “kahm-PAHN-yoo-lah” or as kæm-PÆN-yoo-luh,” it’s a safe bet we’ll all know what you mean.
Paired vowels are often two separate sounds. Cotoneaster is kō-TŌ-nee-Æ-stur, and Ceanothus is see-uh-NŌ-thus. Again, not always, but it’s a good place to start.
The syllable you emphasize also makes a big difference. You’ve probably heard Clematis said as both KLEH-muh-tis and kleh-MÆ-tis. These come down to regional variations or styles.
Some plant names are super long and sounding them out is an adventure. But boy, is it worth it! It’s satisfying to let a magnificent ten-syllable name glide off the tongue. What you used to call dawn redwood will soon be Metasequoia glyptostroboides (meh-tuh-seh-KwOY-uh glihp-tō-strō-BOY-deez.) Virginia creeper is the poetic Parthenocissus quinquefolia. The first name is straightforward to sound out (par-then-ō-SIHS-us). I can imagine about four ways to pronounce the specific epithet, so I asked around and learned it is KWIN-kuh-FŌ-lee-uh. Okie dokie! (Bonus points if you guessed that “quinquefolia” refers to its leaves which are divided into five leaflets).
Impress your friends on a walk by pointing out Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, SOO-dō-tSOO-guh mehn-ZEE-zee-ai. Or the sword fern, Polystichum munitum, pō-LIH-stih-kum myoo-nee-tum.
The more you get into it, the more fun plant names can be. I strongly recommend looking through Missouri Botanical Garden’s plant finder website (Plant Finder (missouribotanicalgarden.org)) which has audio clips of name pronunciations.
Like any language, this takes practice. We all make mistakes and we don’t always agree, but we also accept differences. Ultimately, we just want to talk about plants with someone who shares this passion. Welcome to the club!