Name that plant


labels un-plantedEverything has a name. And thank goodness because it’s so much easier that way. Just think if Linnaeus hadn’t shared his system for classifying everything we’d have to identify things through a key-full of qualifiers (you know that tree with the leaves? – No, not that one – I mean the one with the glabrous twigs and leaves that have 5 lobes which are slightly dentate …. oh nevermind.) plants in the greenhouse - labeled and unlabeled…Or we’d be left with common names and those can be frustrating too – one person’s kinnikinick is another’s bearberry and it makes my head hurt how many flowering plants are called by some kind of “lily” name.

I spend a lot of time with plants and names and labels. And no matter how diligent I am, there is always something unlabeled along with someone -like me!- who will want to know its name. If I see an unlabeled unfamiliar plant, I’ll need to know what it is. Need to know! The thing that gets me is that my desire to know the name doesn’t always have anything to do with wanting to acquire the plant. I seem to just need to know what it is for no other reason than to know what it is. It’s as if knowing a name reveals some sort of hidden treasure of knowledge. And it does – It’s the key that unlocks the door to a good google search! Take this plant: its genus-and-species name is Cardiandra formosana.

Cardiandra formosana - the whole potCardiandra formosana detail

If I knew more Latin I might be able to infer something about some characteristic of the plant that inspired the taxonomist. Something to do with a heart shape somewhere maybe? It takes some research to find out that this plant is related to hydrangeas and might survive a mild winter here.

There’s all sorts of info on the tree labels!I’ve recently tried to get in the habit of including the common names of plants on the labels because a lot of people ask for those too. Common names can illuminate an interesting feature on the plant and some refer to a plant’s particular usefulness and that’s all fun stuff to learn. I think it’s good to know the Latin name if you’re wanting to buy a certain plant – it’s more likely you’ll get exactly what you want. That said, it’s a lot easier to remember (and spell) “trout lily”, for instance, than Erythronium! (Nevermind that it’s also called “adder’s tongue” and “dog-tooth violet” among a bunch of other names that might not all fit on my label for it…)

How do you feel about plant names? Do you like to know the common names or the Latin or both? Which name do you use when you shop? Do you like to see labels in a public garden? Do you label the plants in your own garden? And just for fun – do ever re-name your plants like pets or the Harry Potter herbology? (I remember reading something somewhere about a garden full of Bobotubers and fanged geraniums… How fun is that?!)

12 thoughts on “Name that plant

  1. I’m 1 of those people who uses botanical Latin like a 2d language. I need to know what the plant is, & the common name just confuses me. There is a garden column in our local Sunday paper that is great, except that the writer never uses the Latin name. Half the time I have no idea what plant she’s talking about. Sometimes I do use the common name of a plant if it is truly common (e.g., coneflower), but when writing, I try to use both, including any new names.

  2. Latin rules! Sometimes the common name is the difficult one! I am not sure why people are so afraid of Latin. There are too many overlapping common names for them to give accuracy. I like the idea of a garden of Bobotubers though. I will have to think about some Harry Potter names for garden plants. That could be fun!

  3. I planted a Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) at Mom’s place, and she insist on calling it “Harry Potter’s magic stick.” I think she does that just to agitate me. But now she’s got me doing it! I don’t think I’d want bubotubers (eeew), but I do like the concept of the venomous tentacula: a great way to deal with unwanted garden visitors.

  4. Mr. McG’s D, I think that columnist might appreciate a letter – surely the newspaper could fit a few extra words to demystify the article content! I think you’ve got it right – use both names when possible!

    Layanee, I wonder if people are afraid of mispronouncing the Latin? – I get it wrong all the time! One of our interns would always give it a shot and either wildly mispronounce things or invent a totally new Latin sounding name. I think her valiant attempts made everything more fun – and Harry Potter like! (We miss you, Jerica!)

    Nan, I love your Mom’s name for the Corylus! It’s funny that she knows just how to tease you – mine does too.

  5. What a great topic for a post, Kris. I’m huge fan of labels in public and botanic gardens. And I want both the Latin name AND the common name. They both reveal information about the plant, which is why I always try to use both in my own posts.

    Nope, no Harry Potter or pet names in my garden, though some of my rosebushes act like devil’s snare when I’m pruning them.

  6. Pam, Thank you for vote for labels with both names — I’ll be rewriting a lot of our old labels to include both. We’ve got devil’s snare here too – especially the climbers!

  7. What an interesting post, Kris. I think that it is generally considered better to refer to a plant’s scientific name rather then Latin name these days. I try and keep everything labeled and cataloged at the Estate with both the Scientific and Common names. I always thought that scientific names were set in stone but have found plant nomenclature to be something that is constantly being revised and refined. I usually try and include synonyms when posting about a specific plant and some plants have several but Blogging has really taught me that this is not a clear subject at all.

    I think you should include Common names as that is what a lot of people know and is often more descriptive of the actual plant. There are times when I think Common names are appropriate but have found them to be regional. A plant called something commonly in RI maybe known as something completely different in MS, that confusion is eliminated when you use the scientific name. I could go on here for a while but I think for a person in your position you should devise a naming and labeling system that is comfortable and go with that. I personally like to see consistency in a labeling system when I’m in a public garden.

    Have a Happy Holiday.

  8. Great post, Kris, as others have commented. In my articles and usually in my blog when I remember, I use Latin/binomials and common names both, but one of my ulterior motives is to encourage more gardeners to not be afraid of the botanical names. Lightning will not strike us if we mispronounce a Latin tongue twister.

    And it really peeves me if some garden snob says to another gardener “It’s pronounced For SYTHe ee aa, not for Sith ee ah.” Oh, great! Just what a gardener needs–someone slamming them, instead of encouraging them. As for the gardening snobs, I hope that Pseudomonas syringae infests them. 🙂

    The origin of certain common names is just as intriguing as the botanical names, too. Our common (and beloved by some of us) dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) goes by a lot of common names, including, in Newfoundland, Piss-a-bed; in France, they go by Pissenlit, as well as Dente de lion.

    What DOES marinate my mind is when taxonomists, having nothing better to do, reclassify plants into different families, genera, etc–and then change the botanical names accordingly. They did this with the ostrich fern when I was in college. I’d just mastered the name and spelling of Pteretis pensylvanica, when we were told that we were now supposed to call it Matteucia struthiopteris. Oh, that’s SO similar!

    Happily, Taunton’s Fine Gardening website has a nice pronunciation guide, which can be found at Both Fine Gardening and Horticulture have pronunciation guides in their magazine issues, for the plants that are mentioned. So that helps us learn the names and how to not feel so daunted by the spelling or pronunciation. I’ll still misspell and mis-pronounce by times, but so what, right? 🙂

  9. Oh, and one more thing…it really bugs me when hardworking public garden staff go to a lot of trouble to label plants with botanical/common names…and then some idiots tear up the labels and take them home! It happens in most public gardens I know of; and in nurseries too, of course, where twits pull out labels and either take them or put them back in the wrong pots.

    There, lest I get a reputation for ranting…;-) have a lovely last-few-days-to-Christmas!

  10. D.F., I like how on your blog you include a pronunciation guide for the Latin/Scientific/botanical names. And you’re absolutely right – consistency in labeling is important and I’m working on figuring out a system for the gardens that’s easy to do on the fly, legible and fully informative. (something other than my current china marker scrawl!)

    Jodi, Rant away – I enjoyed that! There are gardeners in my extended family who don’t like to learn and use the Latin names because they think it sounds too hoity-toity. It’s the snobs who ruined it for them. The more I butcher the binomials, the more they get that it’s the people’s language too! And the taxonomists are busy keeping us on our toes (it’s their job – otherwise they’d be bussing tables at the local Italian restaurant). Pretty soon everything will have an a.ka. like Farfugium aka Ligularia and go from Lisianthus to Eustoma and back again! (I have to make sure the labels are erasable.) As for labels going missing … It’s hard to believe anyone would be so inconsiderate. But whatcha gonna do? My memory is bad enough that I shrug and think I must not have labeled that plant yet!

  11. I use common or latin depending on whom I’m talking to and find myself using the common name most often since most of the people I talk “garden” to are new or use the common name themselves. I find the conversation goes much better when my tongue doesn’t get tied in a knot. I suffer from Beards tongue and have a hard enough time with English.

    At the nursery I speak broken latin – If I want the right plant I have to know the specific name and usually after a couple attempts at pronunciation (or a written note) I’m pointed in the right direction leaving behind the help to recover from a laughing fit.

  12. Wiseacre, It’s always a good idea to provide as much entertainment for greenhouse staff as possible – keep up the good work! And I think there’s a whole other language I forgot to mention for when one talks about plants with friends and compatriots or when both names have left the building – it sounds like, “you know the one with leaves like [hand gesture] and it’s kind of pinkish?” (I actually get a lot of descriptions like that from visitors and sometimes I know what they’re talking about…)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *