Ben’s Botanics writes about plant names

A lot has been said recently about the use of ‘Latin’ names for plants, or more to the point whether or not we should continue to use this dead language to name our plants. It’s easy to be put off by names like Mahonia eurybracteata subsp. ganpinensis (best known for the popular form called ‘Soft Caress’) and X Jancaemonda vandedemii, rare hybrid relative of the Saintpaulia (or ‘African Violet’), but do these tongue twisting names need to be replaced?

It’s important to understand why we have these names in the first place. Although commonly referred to as ‘Latin’ names, the botanical names often include a good measure of Greek as well. Creating a universal language of taxonomy (the science of naming things) has allowed anyone anywhere in the world to communicate the identities of plants freely, even though they might not have any other common languages. In modern times, nobody has been at any particular advantage using botanical names because Latin and Greek (certainly classical Greek) aren’t widely taught, so across the world everyone has had to learn this ‘new’ language.

I must concede there is a romance to so many common names; snakeshead, adder’s root, devils and angels, cows and bulls, cuckoo-pint, Adam and Eve, bobbins, naked boys, starch-root, wake robin, friar’s cowl, jack in the pulpit, dog’s cock, priest’s pilly, sucky calves and arum-lily are just some of the common names for Arum maculatum (I’ve been told on several occasions that there is a list of nearly 100 different British names for this plant!). Many of these common names are nostalgic, several are unashamedly rude, but outside the UK few if any of these names would even be understood, let alone recognised. Contact a gardener in the USA (to use the example of another English speaking country) and ask them about a ‘bobbins’ and you probably won’t get a response. Ask them for ‘wake robin’ and they will give you Trillium erectum. Ask them for ‘jack in the pulpit’ and they will give you Arisaema triphyllum. Ask for Arum maculatum by any of the rude names and you may get abuse back!

Arum maculatum, but by what name??

Arum maculatum, but by what name??

With my previous employer I used to receive young plants from French nurseries. One bunch of twigs was labelled ‘Noisetier ‘Merveille de Bollwiller”. Well, with only a rudimentary grasp of the French language I was lost. I’d never heard of a genus called Noisetier, and to be honest it didn’t really sound like a botanical name. It was only when another bundle came out labelled ‘Noisetier ‘Kent Cob” that I realised these were hazelnuts! Things would have been a lot simpler and clearer had the labels said Corylus avellana instead of using the French common name!

... this label caused confusion!

… this label caused confusion!

Even within the same country there can be confusion. Carpets of wood bells, bell bottles, fairy bells, nodding squills and blue squills, or Hyacinthoides non-scripta to give them their botanical name, are a delightful sight. I know these (as do most people really) as bluebells, but in Scotland ‘bluebell’ often refers to Campanula rotundifolia, known in England as ‘harebell’. Confused yet?!

By ANY name, Bluebells are gorgeous!

By ANY name, Bluebells are gorgeous!

Of course in some cases the botanical name has become the common name without anyone really noticing. Rhododendrons are Rhododendron, hydrangeas are Hydrangea (you rarely see ‘hortensia’ used in the UK any more), camellias are Camellia etc. Here I have a confession; there is something that really annoys me about some American plant websites….

Some American plant websites are so hell-bent on providing simple common names that in some cases they just look childish. Let’s take Camellia ‘Debbie’ as our example; it’s a Camellia called Debbie. Simple? Straightforward? Easy? So why must some US websites call it Camellia ‘Debbie’ then immediately give it the common name of ‘Debbie’s Camellia’?! Pointless!

Sorry, I’ll get back on track….

Botanical names can be confusing tongue-twisters, even for gardeners experienced in using them. Learning a new language is often daunting, as I realised when I changed school and found myself suddenly in German lessons. To me words like ‘jugendherberge’ and ‘massenkommunikationsdienstleistungsunternehmen’ were scary, but had I had long enough and been able to make a good try at learning them (not having three weeks of German lessons before being sent into an exam in which, by divine miracle, I scraped a pass with an ‘E’ grade!), I would have coped.

Tongue twister- Aruncus dioicus var. kamtschaticus RBS 0208!

Tongue twister- Aruncus dioicus var. kamtschaticus RBS 0208!

There is no reason to be scared of botanical names; your local garden centre won’t look down on you if your pronunciation is a little off, but if you’re really not confident then why not write the name down? If you’ve seen Chrysosplenium macrophyllum in a magazine, a nursery catalogue or online, but don’t fancy trying the name in public, just write it down. If you’re emailing an order then that’s easy enough, but I often had plant names handed to me on scraps of paper when I worked for a nursery. My colleagues and I recognised the botanical name (or didn’t if it was something we didn’t stock), and could help straight away. By giving your plant supplier the right name you can be better assured that you will actually get the plant you want. Don’t be scared by a plant’s long name!

I’d like to leave you with an anecdote. I once worked for a nursery that sold plants at many of the UK’s flower shows. I remember standing in front of my stand when a lady came up to me and asked “do you have syphilis?!” I didn’t know what to say. After a few gentle enquiries it turned out that she and her friend referred to Physalis (one of many plants known commonly as ‘Chinese lantern’) as ‘syphilis’. Somehow they expected other people to know what they meant!


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