How we use Latin to describe trees (pt. 2)

In the first part of this series, we mentioned that the edge (also called the margin) of a leaf is useful in helping us identify trees. Then we gave a detailed list of words we can use to describe the margins of a leaf. These words often have Latin etymology, and to prove this, we supplied the Latin source words and their meanings.

Here we will take a similar approach. Since the shape of a leaf is a useful clue in identifying trees, we will provide some words to describe it. These words often have Latin etymology, so just like before, we will supply the Latin source words and their meanings. Below is a list of words describing the shape of a leaf, and their respective etymology.

Also, I encourage you to check out the pictures at Virginia Tech’s dendrology website.


Lanceolate leaves are long and slender, much longer than they are wide. In other words, they have the shape of a lance. This is not surprising, as the English word descends from the Latin word lanceolatus, which means, having the form of a lance. Lanceolate leaves are found on willow trees.


Spatulate leaves have slender bases and very broad tips. This is also not surprising, as the word spatulate comes from the Latin spatula, meaning a broad, flat piece. The Latin word itself comes from the Ancient Greek word, spáthē, meaning any broad blade of wood or metal. Water oak leaves are spatulate.

Heart-shaped (or “cordate”)

The word cordate is used in botany to describe something that is heart shaped. It descends from the Latin word cor, which means heart. In case you are interested, the English word core also shares this etymology. Redbud leaves are cordate.


We call the leaf shape orbicular when the overall shape is circular, rounded, or orb-like. This differentiates it from not only the above shapes, but also from more oblong or elliptical shapes. The word orbicular comes from the Latin word orbis which means circle, ring, or orb. The Romans used the phrase orbis terrarum as a name for the world. Aspen leaves are often orbicular, and some more examples can be found at the Illinois NRES website.


We say that the shape of a leaf is ovate when it is shaped like an egg and broadest near the base. The word descends from the Latin words ovatus, which means egg-shaped, and ovum, which means egg. Zelkova leaves are ovate. Here are some more examples at the NRES site.


The word ellipsis comes from Ancient Greek and means a lack or omission. The same word also exists in Latin. We are all familiar with the typographical ellipsis, indicated by three dots, signifying an omission of words. But how do we get from this sense of the word, omission, to the mathematical shape of an ellipse? The name for the mathematical shape comes from the Greek geometer Apollonius of Perga, who studied conic sections. The cross section which forms a parabola meets the base at an angle equal to the external angle of the cone. For a hyperbola, this angle is greater than the external angle, and for an ellipse, it is less. This is a rushed way of explaining why Apollonius chose these names for the conic sections. Back to the subject, though. Elliptical leaves, like their namesake, are ellipse-shaped and symmetrical. One example are the leaves from spicebush trees. Here are some more examples at the NRES website.


Obovate leaves are like ovate leaves turned upside down. Obovate leaves are egg-shaped, but broadest near the tip. Get the difference? You can understand this visually by comparing the outlines of an ovate leaf and an obovate leaf. The leaves of some magnolia trees are obovate, such as the Magnolia kobus and the Magnolia obovata.


As the NRES explains, oblong leaves are two to four times longer than they are wide. The leaf tip and base can be any shape, and the sides are close to parallel. The word oblong comes from the Latin word oblongus, which means more long than wide, and is itself a compound of the Latin prefix ob- and the adjective longus, which means long. American and Chinese chestnut leaves are oblong.


How we use Latin to describe trees

Leaf edges are useful for identifying trees. When you can describe the edge on a leaf, you may already know what kind of tree it belongs to. But leaf edges are useful for more than just identifying trees. They are also useful for learning Latin.

There are four types of leaf edges. You can see some really good pictures of these types at Virginia Tech’s dendrology website. [1] Below, I have created a list of words we use to describe leaf edges, and I also explain the etymology.

Smooth (or “entire”)

Okay, the word smooth does not come from Latin. But we also use the word entire to describe these edges. As in, the entire edge is smooth. The word entire comes from the Latin word integer; which, in its accusative case, takes the form integrum. The Latin word integer means complete, whole, or intact. Which is why we call the whole numbers integers.


We describe leaves that have large teeth as being dentate. The word dentate comes from the Latin word dentatus, which means full of teeth. The Latin word itself derives from a simpler noun, dens, which means teeth. American chestnut leaves are dentate.


Just as a knife can be serrated, a leaf can be serrate. These two words have the same etymology, and it’s hard to say when we should use serrate instead of serrated. I think the gist of it is that serrate is more common in scientific communities, whereas serrated is more common in every day speech. The two words descend from the Latin word serratus, which means saw-shaped. The word serratus is the past participle of the verb serro, which means to saw. As you can see from Virginia Tech’s website, red maple leaves are serrate.

Lobes and Sinuses

The last category are the leaves that have lobes and sinuses. The word lobe comes from the Ancient Greek word lobos, which means any projection or division, especially those that have a round shape. [2]  The word was appropriated much later into the Latin language (sometime after the 14th century CE) and latinized as lobus. The word sinus, on the other hand, seems to have a more straightforward descent from Latin. The word is the same in both languages. The word sinus is a noun meaning any hollow or cavity. White oak leaves are lobed, and by looking at them you can clearly see the pattern of lobes and sinuses.

Medea Kills her Sons

Glauce had hardly put on the garment when she felt a great pain throughout her entire body, and after a little while, afflicted with a cruel torture, she passed away. When these things had been accomplished, Medea, driven into a mad rage, killed her own children; then, having judged herself to be in great danger if she remained in Thessaly, she decided to flee the region. Having decided this, she prayed that the sun would supply help to her in such danger. The sun, having been moved by these prayers, sent a chariot to which were joined dragons equipped with wings. Medea, having judged that such an opportunity should not be let go, climbed into the chariot, and so, having been carried through the air unharmed, reached the city of Athens. Jason himself, after a short while, was killed in such an amazing way. It happened, whether by chance or divine plans, that under the shadow of his ship, which had been moored on the shore, he was sleeping. Soon the ship, which until now had stood upright, having suddenly collapsed onto that place where Jason was lying, crushed the unfortunate man.

Latin text


  1. his precibus commotus — by these prayers having been moved
  2. prex, precis — prayer
  3. sive … sive — either … or; whether … or

A Fatal Gift

After Jason and Medea were expelled from Thessaly, they came to the city of Corinth, of which city a certain Creon then possessed the kingship. Creon had one daughter, called Glauce. After he saw her, he decided to send a messenger to his wife Medea, to relay this message, that he would marry Glauce. But when Medea learned what he had in mind, she became very angry, and pledged an oath to avenge herself of such a wrong. Therefore she adopted this plan. She prepared a garment which was woven with great skill and dyed with various colors; she soaked this with a certain deadly poison, the strength of which was such that if anyone should put on this garment, their body would burn as though it were on fire. Having done this, she sent the garment to Glauce; and she, not suspecting any wrong, gladly accepted the gift; and as is the custom with women, put on the new garment at once.

Latin text


  1. Erat autem Creonti — (sum + dative = possession) Creon had
  2. iure iurandum — by an oath
  3. ulturam — (future infinitive) will be avenged
  4. nihil mali — (partitive genitive) nothing bad

A Dangerous Experiment

While the king’s daughters, astounded, were thinking about this miracle, Medea said this: “See how strong my medicine is. Therefore, if you want your father to return to youth, you yourselves should do what I did. Cast your father’s limbs into a pot; I will add the magic herbs.” When this was heard, the king’s daughters thought that the advice which Medea had given should not be disregarded. Therefore they killed their father, Pelias, and cast his limbs into a brass pot; and they did not doubt that it would be most useful to him. But the affair turned out completely other than they had hoped, for Medea did not gave them the same herbs which she herself had used. And so, after they waited a long time in vain, they realized their father was really dead. When these things had been done, Medea hoped that she would take over the kingdom with her spouse; but since the citizens knew in what what way Pelias had perished, they were indignant at such a crime. And so, after Jason and Medea had been driven from the kingdom, they made Acastus king.

Latin text


  1. omnino — entirely, altogether
  2. aliter ac — otherwise than

Magic Arts

Having learned these things, Medea took it badly, and led by a desire for the kingdom, decided to cause the death of the king by means of a trick. After deciding this, she went to the king’s daughters and said this: “You see that your father is now worn out with age, and is not strong enough to rule the kingdom. Do you not want him to be made young again?” Then the daughters of the king responded with this: “Surely this cannot be done? For who is ever made young from old age?” But Medea responded: “You know me to have a great knowledge of medicine. Now therefore I will demonstrate to you in what way this thing can be done.” After she finished speaking, she killed a ram of old age, and placed its limbs inside a brass pot, and afterwards, with fire heating the pot, poured certain herbs into the water. Then, while the water was bubbling, she sang a magic song. Soon the ram jumped out of the pot and ran through the fields with its strength restored.

Latin text

The Bargain with Pelias

Finally, after many dangers, Jason reached that same place from where he had set out. Then, after disembarking from the ship, he immediately made his way to king Pelias, who ruled the kingdom during that time, and after having showed the golden fleece, asked that the kingdom be handed over to him, for Pelias had promised, if Jason retrieved the fleece, then the kingdom would be handed over to him. After Jason indicated what he wanted to be done, Pelias at first did not respond, but for a long time in the same sadness, remained silent; finally he said this: “You see me now worn out with age, and there is no doubt that my last day is approaching. Therefore allow me, while I live, to be king; since when I will have finally passed away, you will succeed me.” Persuaded by this speech, Jason said that he would do as he had asked.

Latin text


  1. eundem — accusative singular of “idem”, same
  2. in eundem locum — to that same place