3 Crucial Resources for Learning Latin Names Of Plants
You may not think that Latin and holistic health have anything in common. Latin is one of those ancient languages that is rarely taught in school anymore, while holistic health is an evolving frontier. But, you might be surprised.
Have you ever picked up a box of tea to the read the ingredients and noticed that half of it is in a different language? Or, maybe you’ve picked up a body product at your natural foods store and realized you don’t know what “Simmondsia chinensis” is. It sounds menacing but it’s actually jojoba, a very nourishing ingredient in natural skin care products. That’s Latin!
So, why is it there? Why don’t they just list jojoba or olive oil instead of “Olea europaea” and move on?
It’s simple. Accuracy.
As we’ve collectively named plants over time, we’ve gotten a little repetitive. For example, we’re all familiar with the robust culinary herb basil. But in herbal medicine, there are many names for basil including sweet basil, Holy basil, and tulsi. And while they’re all “basil,” they’re not the same variety of the plant, which means they don’t necessarily have the same active constituents or medicinal properties. That’s a major consideration when choosing the best holistic health modality or protocol for a specific person and situation. (FYI … “basil” and “sweet basil” are both Ocimum basilicum (L.), but Holy basil (a.k.a. tulsi) is Ocimum tenuiflorum (L.))
Hence, we love Latin binomials!
Binomials are the two-part Latin name of an organism; the first part (e.g., “Ocimum”) is the genius and the second part (e.g., “basilicum”) is the specific epithet, or description. Binomials tell you the exact ingredient you are working with, which allows you to create a safe and effective natural health and beauty products—whether a tea or tincture or topical aromatherapy essential oil blend.
As ACHS Herbal Medicine Program Chair Scott Stuart said in his post, “What’s in a name? Why Latin binomials are important”:
The issue of herb names is difficult enough just dealing with well-known North American and European herbs. But the herb world is becoming a village, and the East and West are adopting and exchanging each other’s materia medica.
When working with plants, we have a responsibility to choose the correct ingredient and to tell our friends, family, and clients exactly what we are recommending so they can choose for themselves, too. Latin is one powerful tool we can use to get there!
But, I don’t knoooooow Latin, you might be thinking. That’s okay. If you’re an herbalist, aromatherapist, or natural products manufacturer, there are several resources you can use to learn correct Latin as you go. And, bonus, these same tools are great for health and wellness enthusiasts who just want to be able to read an ingredient lists with confidence.
Here are three of our favorite resources for learning the Latin names of plants in no time:
#1 Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN)
The GRIN is a U.S. government website for the National Genetic Resources Program (NGRP). The NGRP works to “acquire, characterize, preserve, document, and distribute to scientists, germplasm of all lifeforms important for food and agricultural production.”
As part of its mission, the NGRP maintains the GRIN website where the public can search for germplasm information about plants and microbes, among other things.
It’s an extremely helpful website for quick searches about species data like the Latin name of a plant. When you enter the common name (e.g., garlic) into the search box, results include the Latin name, including the Latin name of several common varieties (if applicable), the genus, the family, other common names, and cultivation information.
Bookmark the GRIN website here.
#2 The International Plant Names Index (IPNI)
The IPNI is an online database collaboratively maintained by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Australian National Herbarium. The IPNI is a free and dynamic resource providing the public with biographical information about seed plants, ferns, and lycophytes. The IPNI works to “eliminate the need for repeated reference to primary sources for basic bibliographic information about plant names. The data are freely available and are gradually being standardized and checked.”
Like the GRIN, the IPNI can be a really helpful website to locate information about commonly used botanicals. However, it’s a bit more complicated to use because you actually need to know the Latin name of the plant.
What?!!! I know, I know.
We recommend the IPNI as a study tool. Use this website to test your growing knowledge of botanical names and Latin binomials once you’ve built a familiarity with the basics.
Bookmark the IPNI quick search guide here.
#3 Fine Gardening Pronunciation Guide
Fine Gardening is a popular magazine you might have seen at your local plant nursery or home improvement store. They also have a pretty cool online pronunciation guide to help you learn your Latin.
Now that you’ve found the Latin binomials in GRIN and are mastering your memory with the IPNI, it’s time to learn how to say those long and complicated names.
This online pronunciation guide provides both a phonetic breakdown of the pronunciation (super helpful for visual learners!) and an audio file of someone pronouncing the name aloud. You can also download the audio file to your desktop for quick reference.
Bookmark the Fine Gardening pronunciation guide here.
Don’t Laugh Off Your Latin Binomials
Remember, Latin binomials can be intimidating at first, like anything new. But, they’re essential knowledge for safely working with botanicals and especially when you’re making natural health and beauty products. So, take your time and practice, practice, practice.
If you’re inspired to take a class and delve deeper into how to use botanicals (and Latin names!), ACHS offers several accredited, online programs including the undergraduate Certificate in Natural Products Manufacturing, Diploma in Herbal Studies – Master Herbalist, and the Graduate Certificate in Botanical Safety.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. This article has not been reviewed by the FDA. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I am the Dean of English, Communications Manager, and Press Coordinator for American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS), the Institution that publishes this blog. However, all opinions are my own. This blog may contain affiliate links. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”