Singing the Praises of Natural Latin

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An essay concerning the history and extraordinary utility of the beautiful Romance language that is scientific Latin. It is the language that is common to all naturalists.

I call it Natural Latin.

The Extravagant Partisanship of the Leek-Green Faction

When first I became a maker of wood-meadows, it was in response to the devastating losses in flora and fauna that we have witnessed during my lifetime. That over 97% of lowland meadows have gone under the plough, with a similar degree of disappearance in coppiced woodlands – never mind all those miles of mixed hedgerows – prompted the following thoughts:
If we’ve lost all those from the base of the ecological pyramid, what has happened to the fauna that depended on them? The grievous declines in invertebrate pollinators of every stripe, and of the songbirds, which, in turn, depend on them to feed their nestlings, seem to have run in parallel. That shouldn’t be a surprise.

I know fine well that the recreation of a wood-meadow ecosystem by planting rather than natural regeneration is controversial. But perhaps by far the most important part of any such attempt must be to ensure that the plants in the wood-meadow provide not only nectar and pollen, but also the larval food sources for their young. This implies detailed study of the history of the ecosystem, and of the component parts, not only in terms of species, but especially in relation to the long-term management. It’s an ancient system, probably dating back  7,000–8,000 years. It was once widespread in temperate Northern Europe, is possibly one of the oldest known forms of human management, and it supports one of the most diverse of plant communities  on the planet.

That’s all part of my back-story now. But perhaps the biggest part of the biggest part of my researches was my discovery of moths, and the subsequent searches for the floral and arboreal associations and relationships of moths and other Lepidoptera.
And of the moth that first captured my heart in a single moment of pure trembling enchantment? How could I not have known such a joyous thing existed, or that it would inspire such a sense of wonder? A sumptuous beauty in clothed in emerald velveteen that came to mind each time I closed my eyes for weeks after my first sighting.

It was Pseudoips prasinana (L.), the Green Silver-lines. And this is why.


Above and featured photo: Pseudoips prasinana, Green Silver-lines, both taken in an East Sussex woodland by Hildesvini. Own work, CC0

The Green Silver-lines is on the wing between May and July, having hatched from its tough boat-shaped pupa on the underside of the leaves of its larval food plants: Downy and Silver birches, oaks, hazel and elms – they should all be major components in any new copse plantings, in my opinion. And no, it’s not enough just to plant flowers – many other species of moth use our native trees too, often in numbers that far outstrip those of meadow flowers.  As I discovered when reading that seminal ecological paper, by Robert Southwood, The number of insect species associated with various trees.(1961). [See acknowledgements].

There have been other joys on this entomological journey. Oh, etymology, which has a constant source of wonder to me. There’s an English word, prasinous, which means of a clear, lively green colour, and it’s derived from the Ancient Greek, πρᾰ́σῐνος prásinos, meaning leek-green, light green. So there you have it: prasinus m ‎(feminine prasina, neuter prasinum) – leek green.
But as with many specific epithets that denote colour – and they’re used in Natural Latin for both flora and fauna – the actual shade is seldom precise. There are upwards of 1096 colour names to choose from. I used three major references to help track them down, mostly H.A. Dade’s Colour Terminology in Biology, and Ridgway’s Color Standards and Color Nomenclature (1912). 
The spectrum of the colour prasina looks something like this:
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My further etymological explorations lead me to discover that the term prasinus has been exploited right across the natural spectrum- not only by entomologists.


Above: Anaplectoides prasina,  the Green Arches moth.
By Bernard Dupont, France. CC BY-SA 2.0


Above: Mimoides pausanias prasinus. Costa Rica, Limon Province, S. Rio Blanca. By kind permission of Andy Warren. Thanks Andy!

Big Beak, Little Body

Above: Emerald toucanet, Aulacorhynchus prasinos, at the Moody Garden’s Rainforest Pyramid, by Kati Fleming – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Above: A Green Moray Eel, Gymnothorax prasinus, left and Greyface Moray Eel, Gymnothorax thrysoideus, sharing a lair. Green Island, South West Rocks, NSW By Richard Ling – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

And to include the amphibians too, thus covering all groups …

Nymphargus prasinus 9644
The Rio Calina Cochran Frog, Nymphargus prasinus (Duellman, 1981). A species of glass frog. Photo: William E Duellman via CalPhotos. © 2010 Division of Herpetology, University of Kansas.

That, however, is not the end of it. For I discovered that Claudius, Nero and Caligula were also enthusiastic leek-greeners. The leek-green faction of charioteers in the Roman circus, as opposed to the reds, blues and whites,  were known as – you’ve guessed it. The prasina, or prasinoi. You will note that, since the circuit was conducted in an anti-clockwise fashion, the greens are in the lead. And if, as Robert Graves would have us believe, Claudius enjoyed such extravagant partisanship of the leek-green faction, well frankly … so do I.

Prasinoi Mosaico_del_circo_MCGR_2285

Above: Le quatro equipas (blau, verde, blanc, rubie) al circo. Mosaico trovate a Lyon (rue Jarente) in 1806. Charioteers. By QuartierLatin1968 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Acknowledgements: I should like to thank entomologist, Robin Howard, for introducing me to both the Green Silver-lines, and to the invaluable A. Maitland Emmett, The Scientific Names Of The British Lepidoptera: Their History And Meaning. Harley Books. (1991). I now sleep with this beneath my pillow, in the hope that some form of osmosis may occur.
And to the late and sorely missed Professor Simon Leather, for introducing me to Southwood, T.R.E. (1961). The number of insect species associated with. various trees. Journal of Animal Ecology, 30, 1-8.

An Innocent Passion?

The vernacular names of our flora and fauna are – and will ever be – a fascinating and deeply ingrained part of our linguistic and cultural heritage. If we seem obdurately attached to them, it must in part be because they belong to our oral tradition, as often as not learned at grandmother’s knee. Many common names are charming, as with love-in-a-mist, Nigella damascena, or forget-me-not, Myosotis sylvatica. Some are reminders of widespread use in folk medicine. Heartsease, Viola tricolor, for example, was used as a love charm and for other disorders of the heart.

One of the enchantments in the etymology of many scientific terms used in Natural Latin is how intimately intertwined the vernacular and the Latin can be – not all are as saccharine as those above, and neither would your granny approve of them.

Since the season for many of our wild orchids is now upon us, I’ll begin with the resolutely masculine Orchis mascula, L., the Early Purple Orchid, whose name in both its parts implies manliness. The specific epithet is obvious. The generic, Orchis, less so.

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Reproduction of a painting by the Swedish botanist C. A. M. Lindman (1856–1928), taken from his book(s) Bilder ur Nordens Flora (first edition published 1901–1905, supplemented edition 1917–1926).














The literal translation from Latin is testicle – though the derivation may not be apparent from the beauty of the flower. See the paired tubers at the root, however, and it’s clear to see that the reference is anthropomorphic. Incidentally, the medical term for the removal of testicles is … orchidectomy.

Such frankness has origins in bawdier, or at least, less inhibited times. Indeed, such venereal allusions date back at least as Pliny. The old common names in English include dog’s stones (i.e. testicles), fool’s stones, and cullions, in reference to the testicular tubers. A similar set are imaginatively applied in French to the Early Purple and to the Green-winged orchid, Orchis morio L., (now Anacamptis morio), for which the only genteel name I have found is Petite Dame des Prés, Little Lady of the meadows. More typical are such as Couillon de Chien, Couillon de Renard, as in the old English cullions. In Orchis Bouffon, literally Fool’s or Jester’s orchid, the reference is to Fool’s stones, rather than to an idiot per se, just as in English.

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Anacamptis morio, illustrated under its older, Linnean name Orchis morio. From Flora Batava, Volume 7 (1830), Janus (Jan) Kops;  Illustrator Christiaan Sepp –, Public Domain,

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Doctrine of Signatures that talismanic and aphrodisiacal virtues were ascribed to the orchid root.

As Dioscorides has it:

… if men do eat of the great full or fat roots of these kinds of dog’s stones, they cause them to beget male children.

In Thessaly, the women give the tender full root to be drunk in goat’s milk to move bodily lust

Maude Grieves describes salep, the concoction prepared from the ground tubers of both O. mascula and A. morio, as a wholesome and nutritious drink, and comments coyly that witches used them in their love potions. Others attribute more earthy qualities – those of a powerful aphrodisiac.

Paracelsus (1493-1541), Alchemist, Physician, Botanist, wrote thus: … behold the Satyrion root, is it not formed like the male privy parts? No one can deny this. Accordingly magic discovered it and revealed that it can restore a man’s virility and passion.

Satyrion is another, older Roman name for Orchis, (8th Century BCE) that derives from the association with satyrs, who ate orchid tubers and were impelled by so doing to their habitual excesses.

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – Nymphs and Satyr (1873). 

The Greek name for these orchids was priapiscus. Priāpiscus, πριαπίσκος: a plant that excited passion, fool-stones, orchis.It takes little imagination to see where this is leading. A minor God in all but one respect, the rustic Priapus had responsibilities in the traditional small-god realms of fertility, livestock, fruit and gardens. Oh, and genitalia. He is, of course, best remembered for his huge and painfully permanent erection, which lives on in the modern medical term for the same, priapism.

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Priapus with Caduceus. Anonymous fresco in Pompeii, between 89 BC and 79 AD. Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples), Italia.

In the modern naturalist, orchids do still inflame passions, though now, it seems, a more innocent one than was formerly the case. Find out more by clicking the links below.

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Left: the sumptuous, pleated rosette of Orchis mascula, North Yorkshire roadside verge, spring 2016

















Above: Flower spike of Orchis mascula,  arising from the rosette shown above.

Orchis mascula (L.) L. Early Purple Orchid. A denizen of woodlands, scrub, and grasslands, also found on road verges, flowering from April to June in the UK.

Species account:

Distribution map:

National Biodiversity Network data:


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Anacamptis morio (L.) R.M. Bateman, Pridgeon, & M.W. Chase (Orchis morio L.) Green-winged Orchid. The flower colour is variable, ranging from palest pink to red-pink, and purple-violet; it is the upper tepals with green veins that give rise to the common name. A native of grassy habitats including floodplain meadows, flowering from May to June.






Scroll down to see the species account:

National Biodiversity Network data: