Plant Names: From Confusion to Clarity

 

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Whether or not we would love roses quite so much if they were called dock or dandelion, the truth is that gardeners need to know the names of plants, and they need names they can rely on.

Our common plant names are often sweet and familiar, reminiscent of childhood memories, poetry, and myth. They have a music the proper, scientific names often lack.

Yet, common names are slippery.

One community’s tulip tree is another’s saucer magnolia. Only the name magnolia soulangeana guarantees we are talking about the same beautiful, spring-flowering, deciduous tree.

If we only know a common name like “Burning Bush” or “Snowball Bush,” there really is no telling what we’ll be given if we ask for that at a nursery.

The flower I grew up calling Bachelor’s Buttons is properly called globe amaranth and even more properly identified as Gomphrena globosa. The flowers most people call Bachelor’s Buttons are cornflowers with the scientific name Centaurea cyanus.

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Are you overwhelmed yet?

For years, I felt overwhelmed even by the thought of trying to learn scientific plant names. I resisted learning them and my eyes would simply skim over those names on a plant label or in a book.

These names sounded difficult and unfamiliar, and I assumed I would never be able to remember them.

But as I began to learn more about different varieties of plants I realized that only by paying careful attention to the scientific name would I be able to guarantee that I was bringing home the right plant.

If I wanted a tall, airy purple verbena I had better find verbena bonariensis. No other purple verbena would do.

If I wanted a native and non-invasive honeysuckle, I had better look for Lonicera sempervirens and avoid Lonicera maackii at all costs.

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Don’t be afraid!

There is no need to learn every scientific name in the book.

Begin small.

Take baby steps.

Soon, Latin names will be rolling off your tongue.

Just as I recommended getting to know twenty plants really well, I suggest beginning by learning the true names for the plants you already grow and love.

Before you know it:

  • your garden thoughts will have a new specificity and precision
  • you will be better equipped to tell a native from an invasive and a species from a hybrid
  • you will understand plant families and will go looking for more things to grow from within a plant family that seems to like your conditions.

Language, it turns out, can open a whole new world for gardeners.

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Here are some resources to help you get started:

A helpful podcast episode and blog post from Joe Gardener.

A pronunciation guide from Fine Gardening magazine.

WHY we use Latin plant names

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Skills

Posted on

July 17, 2020

1 Comment

  1. Lynne Du Toit

    Thank you for this Christie …as you say ‘baby steps’ in a discipline I would love to learn!

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