Your guide to all those plant names

BY Andrew Collyer

Published 16/01/2016 | 00:00

Andrew Collyer.
Andrew Collyer.

Dead head winter bedding.

Garrya eliptica 'James Roof'

what's in a name? I've found that the single most mind boggling aspect of gardening to the general public is the complicated names given to plants. People often ask me 'How do you remember all those plant names'. It's really the same as a foreign language the more you used it the easier it becomes. Likewise the more you use plants the easier it is to remember their names and identify one plant from another. The naming of all living things is a subject in its self and in the plant world it is known as Botanical nomenclature.

In general plants have two names, the Generic name [Genera] and the specific name [Species]. These two names are usually taken from Latin or Greek. In the garden world these two names are often followed by a cultivar name which is a name given to a selected often bred cultivated plant. This is often in English or shown in a translated from from the language of origin. The reason for this naming system is to provide clarity worldwide so that someone in Brasil knows a plant by the same name as someone in Ireland.

Easy then. Well not quite as different languages may pronounce these given names slightly differently or with accent. Even within English confusion may occur. In Australia many years ago I nearly came to blows with a New Zealander over the pronunciation of the common plant Pittosporum. My Pitt-o-sporum to his Pitt- toss- pore-um. In fact neither of us realised we were talking about the same plant to begin with. As Pittosporum is a native of New Zealand I just shut up in the end but I still think I was right.

The use of Latin and Greek can also not be as straight forward as you may think. A regular reader of this column and neighbour of mine, it's nice to know I have at least one regular reader, takes delight in correcting my anglicized pronunciation of some Latin names. Being learned in the subject I always bow to his greater knowledge but afterwards slip easily back into pidgin Latin. The system does of course work very well and is infallible in the written word. Once you are used to the language of plant naming a lot can be known about a specific plant by that plants name alone, particularly the species name.

Genera names are always nouns so start with a capital letter. Most of these names are taken from old Greek, Latin and Arabic some with prefix or surfix added. Rhododendron from Greek means Rhodos [rose] dendron [ tree]. Some names may be from mythology- Daphne for instance and others named after plant hunters and botanists, Fuchsia after Leonard Fuchs as an example.

Species names are more descriptive and wide ranging. They can be derived from the origin of the plant- continent, country, region. Hispanica [Spain], sinensis [China] japonica [Japan]. Or growing habitat-river, mountain, woods. Alpina [Alpine], maritima [Seaside], palustris [Marshes].

Plant growing habits like horizontalis, pendula, and fastigiata [upright] Flower and leaf colour, shape and botanical type are often used. Alba [white], flava [pale yellow] purpurea [purple], florabunda [free flowering] stellata [starry]. And on and on it goes. Fragrance, being like other plants and peoples names are all used in species nomenclature. The only proviso is that it must be, and you might find this amusing, pronounceable.

Cultivars are often names given by plant breeders and can be anything as long as they are not offensive in any language. They are always start with capital letters. Names can be as simple as Penstemon ['White Bedder'] and Phormium ['Cream Delight'] to others that offend common intelligence if not decency like Salvia [Hot Lips], Rosa [Sexy Rexy] and Mahonia [Soft Caress].

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