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What’s In a Name?

November 21, 2010

Tradescantia or spiderwort? (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Recently I recommended a favorite garden book to a friend, but she returned it unread, saying that she “just couldn’t get into it” because the author “cared too much about calling things by their proper names.” She was referring here to botanical Latin, and I think she found its use obnoxiously pretentious. This incident got me thinking about why botanical Latin arouses such strong feelings in many amateur gardeners.

Common names for plants are a lot like the use of nicknames among family and friends; they bespeak an easy intimacy between gardeners and the plants in their gardens. Common names often evoke memories and warm emotions that we associate with particular plants. And, unlike botanical Latin names, which are prone to change when botanists refine plant classifications, common names are stable over time, getting passed along from one generation of gardeners to the next.

Contrasted with this is the distance and formality of botanical Latin names and the intimidation many people feel about how to pronounce them correctly. So why bother with botanical Latin?

While every species of plant has its own unique botanical name (a genus name followed by a species name), common names are not specific. Sometimes the same common name is used for a number of different plants. If I talk about loosestrife, am I referring to the dreaded invasive purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), to the yellow  loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata) that has a reputation as a garden thug but is not known to harm local ecosystems, or to the native whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) that blooms along the side of my dirt road in summer? Are bluebells Mertensia virginica (United States) or Hyacinthoides non-scripta (England)? Common names can also differ between different regions of the same country. So if gardeners want to communicate clearly about plants to gardeners from outside their local area, using botanical Latin names can ensure that they’re all referring to the same plant.

Platycodon grandiflorus (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) As a self-professed “word nerd,” I find it fun to decipher the meanings of botanical names, which often tell something about a plant’s characteristics or history. If a plant species is called grandiflorus, for example, I know that it has big flowers. Knowing that the species name of my peonies (Paeonia) is latifolia tells me that they have broad leaves. Sometimes a species name indicates where a plant grows most happily, as in  frigida (in cold regions), montana (in the mountains), or silvestris (in the woods). Sometimes the botanical name of a species identifies its original home, as in japonica (Japan), sinensis (China), canadensis (Canada), or virginica (Virginia). I’m particularly fond of species names like fragrans (fragrant), gloriosus (glorious), spectabilis (spectacular), and splendens (splendid) that denote the desirability of a plant. Sometimes my tenuous knowledge of Latin leads me astray, and I’m surprised when I look up the meaning of a plant name. Recently, for example, I assumed that the species name of Amsonia tabernaemontana probably had something to do with growing on mountain plateaus. But when I looked it up, I learned that “Tabernaemontanus” was how the 16th century German botanist Jakob Theodor von Bergzabern rendered his name in Latin, and that this plant is one of several named in his honor. There are a number of inexpensive guidebooks to botanical names; the one I have on my shelf is A. W. Smith’s A Gardener’s Handbook of Plant Names (Dover Publications, 1997).

So should we use common names or botanical names for our plants? Why choose? We can use whichever names will best help us communicate with others. When I’m talking with my sisters about plants that we all know, I will use the common names that we learned in childhood. When I’m writing blog posts, I want to write for the broadest possible audience, including both an international audience that does not necessarily share the same common names and an audience of home gardeners who may not feel comfortable with botanical Latin; so the obvious solution for me is to use both.

What’s in a name? As it turns out, a lot. Both common names and botanical names represent complex layers of meaning that can enhance enjoyment of our gardens and communication with other gardeners.

Correction: When I wrote this post, I misread the species name of my peonies as P. latifolia; it’s really P. lactiflora. Looks pretty similar, right? But it has a very different meaning – especially since I got both halves of the species name wrong! I misread the second half of the name as being something about leaves or foliage (folia), but it’s actually about flowers (flora) – which makes sense; I mean, how often when you think of peonies are you thinking mostly of foliage? The first half, I misread as lati (meaning wide), but it’s really lacti (meaning milk). Hmm. I think this is telling me that the original species from which many of our modern varieties of peonies were bred had a white (like milk) flower. But, of the various cultivars of Paeonia lactiflora in my garden, only one has a flower that resembles the color of milk. The rest? Well, let’s just say if I poured out a glass of milk and it was this color, I wouldn’t drink it! Smile

16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2010 2:23 pm

    I agree Jean, when trying to entice new gardeners to join us in this wonderful endeavor, I try not to turn them off by speaking Latin. However, if I am looking for or recommending a specific I always use the Latin and common name.


  2. gardeningasylum permalink
    November 21, 2010 2:34 pm

    Hi Jean, Like you I enjoy both the Latin and common names – who wouldn’t want ‘Kiss me over the garden gate’ in the lexicon? The Latin names are more precise, but they do keep changing them, e.g. cimicifuga is now actea…

  3. November 21, 2010 4:56 pm

    Wonderful educative post! I personnally like when both names are mentioned. Thank you Jean, I learned some new things!

  4. November 21, 2010 8:16 pm

    I completely agree with you Jean. I also love the latin names and enjoy learning their meanings when I do not know them. If someone is reading a post about a plant, tree or shrub, it is very helpful for the reader if we list the latin names . . . in case anyone would like to try the plant we are writing about. I love your balloon flower photo! ;>))

  5. November 21, 2010 10:38 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. There is absolutely nothing pretentious about using proper names for plants.

  6. November 21, 2010 10:43 pm

    Gardening Gone Wild just had another fabulous post about Latin plant names (one of a series). It really makes it more fun to know what the names mean. That said, I’m always baffled how American gardeners pronounce the Latin names… But I’m almost used to it by now.

  7. Garden Walk Garden Talk permalink
    November 22, 2010 7:01 am

    I completely agree. I too like the fact that the Latin name tells me so much about the plant, even if I have never seen it. I mix both on the blog, but it has more to do with what is faster to type. In conversation, it depends on my audience.

  8. November 22, 2010 7:22 am

    Plant names are HARD! English is obviously my second language after Danish, but I must confess that species of plants (along with species of fish) is one of those things that I find slightly challenging by writing a blog in my second language. For instance, rudbeckia hirta is known as solhat (“sunhat”) in Danish, which is a far cry from black-eyed Susan.

    I guess that’s why I quickly copied your habit of writing both the common name and the latin name; if I get the common name wrong in English, at least there’s the latin name to correct the error.

  9. November 22, 2010 8:14 am

    I fall into the “American who isn’t sure how to pronounce the latin name” group and am a bit intimidated by casual use of the names. What a wonderful teacher you are as you created some excitement about what I could glean from researching the latin terms. Thank you for such an inspiring post about something that is usally so intimidating to me.

  10. November 22, 2010 8:31 am

    I’m surprised that more gardeners don’t use latin names. When I began gardening seriously it was just a natural progression to want to know exactly what plant you were purchasing/trading. I also blame my mother for my obsessive need to learn latin. For instance, anything with a small blue flower my mother calls forget me nots. Whether it’s a forget me not or a blue eyed mary. And bindweed is just another morning glory to her. I became obsessive about proper identification, lest she gift me with some ‘morning glories’! Thanks for the lesson on latin translation, as I had no idea the meaning behind many of the words I use. Just another way latin names can help you.

  11. November 22, 2010 2:06 pm

    Being a word-nerd, myself, I’ve always enjoyed learning the Latin names — and when I lived abroad, I found them a huge help in communicating with fellow gardeners. I knew very few common names in French, but the Latin bridged the gaps in my foreign language education.

    I enjoyed your article, Jean!

  12. patientgardener permalink
    November 22, 2010 3:15 pm

    I used to find botanical names initimidating but that was because when I read something I couldn’t visulise the plant in my head. However with time I have come to associate more and more botanical names with plants so find it easier to relate to them. In fact when I now come across a botanical name I dont know I actively go and look it up. Here in the UK, especially amongst native plants, many plants can have several common names and this can be extremely confusing so botanical names are hugely important so horticulturalists and gardeners can ensure they are talking about the same plant. They are in latin as this was the language originally used for scientific studies regardless of where you were

  13. November 23, 2010 11:54 am

    In “Native Perennials for the Southeast” Peter Loewer makes the same sensible case for using Latin names. Until reading his explanation I was also “put off” by books that used Latin names. I hope to learn more about them and become more comfortable using them. As for garden blogs, I think you are wise to use both the Latin and the common names – it helps those of us who are amateurs and somewhat new to gardening to put the two together.

  14. November 27, 2010 10:22 am

    I’ll go with both. Pronunciation doesn’t bother me as Latin is a dead language and I am not a scholar with pretensions. Botanical Latin is anyway a ‘manufactured to fit’ language. The common names we grew up with are on the tip of our tongues. And the right name is only right until they decide to rearrange the deck- chairs. I also find the fundamental rule, that the first name is the one that counts, irritating if that first name is plain WRONG. Our Plectranthus madagascariensis is from South Africa, and has absolutely nothing to do with Madagascar. But that is The Right Name.

  15. January 7, 2011 2:45 pm

    Perfectly said! including your comment about international gardeners, with botanical latin is is safer and avoids wrong translations!


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