Become a Latin (Language) Lover

Alright, so you may have thought this was going to be a steamier post than it is, so let me explain.  Some of you may have seen those Latin names in the seed catalog, or on the packets and you have simply glazed over due to bad experiences in school.  You may be thinking that you do not need this Latin in your life, and it is just there so to look good.  I encourage you to learn what it means in the context of your garden.  This extra effort may make you succeed beyond measure.  Seed packets have limited space, so we should assume  any information found there is quite important. The packet can begin to lead you to your future success.  So I recommend reading them, but also taking the extra step of understanding what they mean.

This year, before you buy all of your seeds, I ask you to look into the Latin names of the varieties that you want to grow.  It is fun ordering seeds, and heirloom growers get really carried away in our celebration of plant diversity.  You may like to select based on color, or taste, or select to grow only rare plants.  I try a lot of seeds, and test them out each year. The results have been extreme.  My growing history is pretty rough, for every one that succeeded, 20 may have been a total bomb.  Part of that is where I am growing (Hawaii) part is our multitude of microclimates, altitudes, come and go seasons, and drought…or floods.  So what I have decided to do is to stop torturing myself with the “oh maybe this year” denial, and just accept that some will not do well where I am, and others may thrive.  I am an optimist by nature, but enough is enough, and I have to accept defeat when it comes to certain plants. The key to future success is not to stop with a success or failure, but to understand what those results had in common.  That is where the Latin name of the plant comes in.

On “research Sunday,” I stayed awake into the early morning hours as I plotted which varieties I hoped to grow for the season.  I took it one step further than your average grower, by making lists of the plants I grew, then looked up their scientific, aka Latin name. This was the year to reorder chili pepper seeds, but with some doing great, and others performing poorly, I would not allow myself to order another seed, before understanding if there was a trend behind my successes and failures.

I searched for the Latin (scientific) name of the plant variety, then checked several sources to make sure that they were listed as the same name.  Check a few sources, because mistakes do happen.  Two of my favorite vegetables to grow are categorized into more than one species (example squash and chili peppers) compare what varieties(also known as the common name of the plant) are within each species.  Example for the Triamble squash, the species is Maxima, and the variety name is Triamble.  Triamble is what the pumpkin is most commonly called, but Maxima is its Latin (scientific) classification that categorizes its genetic lineage. It is necessary for plant breeders, but it can also lead you to success as a grower because it helps you to understand the relationships between plants.

Chilis are a love of mine, so lets look at how this applies to chili peppers.  Below, you will see two comeback stories. They were plants that nearly died when I was away travelling.  When we look at these peppers, you see that they are very different in their structure.  They are, in fact,  in different species, but both are hot peppers.  The plant on the left shows more vigor, and the plant on the right looks healthy, but rather average, if not below average.  The plant on the right I consider so-so in its production of peppers.  I happen to adore the taste, so I grow the plant, but I would never consider growing these peppers commercially.  The pepper on the left has vigor, and it is putting out triple the blooms of the other plant.  This species seems to really want to live in my microclimate.

I have struggled year after year with Poblano, Jalapeno, Anaheim.  My CA growing buddies sometimes laugh and give me a concerned look, as if I am a chili pepper growing “hack.” But when I mention my success with Ghost peppers, they listen up, because Ghost is one of the most challenging peppers for many to grow.  For one, it needs a very long season to  produce. Secondly, it can be very challenging to germinate. In CA, and beyond, Jalapeno may be one of the easiest to grow, so it becomes confusing, until you look to the species names, and you will see where the line between successful and so-so pepper plants is drawn.

The beauty in plant diversity is that one size, or in this case one seed, does not fit all.  If you are optimistic, you move forward knowing success is out there, you just need to find it. Hawaii farmers are constantly told that we cannot get our production numbers up high enough.  The problem is in part due to the fact that many of the plants that have become commercial “sweethearts” do not grow well in Hawaii.  Yet other plants in other species, thrive, and produce crops. Because of the way our distribution channels work  often times, only the common commercial varieties are seen on the produce order form, so chefs do not use the wonderful, unique fruits and vegetables that thrive here. (more on that is another post) In fact, they may not even know that it grows here.

the bounty
Ghost, Thai Dragon, Lemon Drop, Hawaiian, Fish, Cayenne, Banana, Jalapeno

So what I encourage you to do, especially those in Hawaii, is to study what did well (or failed) for you, and then look into its genetic make up.  Are there plant “cousins” that are in the same species that you can also try? To follow with the example, Ghost peppers are in the same species as the pepper image above on the left, Jalapeno is in the same species as the pepper on the right side photo.  So I can be relatively certain that if I select more from the same species on the left, I may have further successes!   I have never felt that the key to agricultural success in Hawaii lies in creating new seeds in a lab, or trying to grow and compete within the narrow scope of commercial hybrids that are shipped in by the hundreds of tons.  Our success is right before our eyes, written in an ancient language.  By learning from our success and our failures, we can make better seed selections in the future,  and we will certainly move forward with confident strides.

So become a Latin lover, and begin the journey of the plant family tree.  You will understand how plants are related to each other, and then maybe explore the possibilities that you may not have tried.  Fail too!  Yes, fail and make note of what did not do well, then use your new research skills to understand that as well.   I say, if we learn from both our mistakes and our failures, we learn twice as fast. Guaranteed, you will love Latin (scientific names) when you have a more successful growing season.  When your harvest overflows, with plants needing so little care, you are going to be happy that you took the time to do a little botanical research. Understanding plant genetics is as easy as reading the plant’s seed packet, or catalog description, so give it a try.

Aloha! and good luck!

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