How Plant Names Work

A great many plants are easily and accurately identified by simple English names and some are called by botanical names which have become so familiar that they have become a part of everyday language. Rose, wallflower, carnation and marigold are examples of the first kind, dahlia, chrysanthemum. Gladiolus and delphinium of the second kind. Such names give no one any trouble.

Unfortunately simple names of this kind are not adequate to describe all the many thousands of plants that may be grown in gardens. Some are not sufficiently familiar to have acquired popular names and some have popular names which are not sufficiently precise for the gardener’s needs. There are, for example, around 450 species of shrub commonly known as barberry and no adequate means of distinguishing one from another by popular names.

To meet this situation gardeners have had to make use of the names devised by botanists. These have the advantage of being precise and internationally recognized but they have the drawback of being in a kind of dog Latin or Greek which is often awkward to pronounce and hard to remember. Moreover botanists change names as their knowledge of plants increases and this can cause confusion. In fact there is no need for gardeners to follow every such change, and they rarely do. As a rule they base their botanical nomenclature on some comprehensive and authoritative horti-cultural dictionary, such as the Royal Horti-cultural Society’s Dictionary of Gardening and only change as this changes with successive editions. Even so it can be dis-concerting when a plant one has known for a lifetime as veronica turns up one day as hebe.

Formation of Botanical Names

A botanical name consists basically of two parts, first a generic name and secondly a specific epithet. These may be likened to christian and surnames in reverse. Just as Mr David Buddie would be a particular member of the Buddie family adequately identified by those two names, so Buddleia davidii is a particular species named davidii, of a genus of shrubs named Buddleia. Occasionally a third name is added to indicate some small variation in the species. For example. Buddieia davidii normally has purple flowers but it also has a white-flowered variety called Buddleia davidii alba, ‘alba’ being the Latin for white.

The botanical name for barberry is Berberis and every one of those 450 or more species is called Berberis plus a second distinguishing name, e.g. Berberis darwinii, an evergreen with orange flowers and blue-black berries: Berberis wilsonae, a deciduous shrub with yellow flowers and red berries. And so on.

Botanists are not, as a rule, interested in varieties raised in gardens, and so they leave it to gardeners to give them names if they wish to do so. These varieties are known as ‘cultivars” (i.e. cultivated varieties) to distinguish them from varieties that occur in the wild. Occasionally cultivar names are of a botanical form, but nowadays they are usually fancy names. For example, there are numerous garden varieties of Buddleia davidii supposedly liner than the wild white form named alba. One of these is called White Profusion, and since the rules of plant nomenclature forbid the use of the same fancy name for more than one plant in any one genus, Buddleia White Profusion

is a perfectly accurate mode of designation which can only apply to that particular plant. For the sake of simplicity garden nomenclature is tending towards this use of a generic with a fancy name, e.g. Berbcris Buccaneer, Sedum Autumn Joy, Iberis Snowflake, etc., and this is to be encouraged. Pronunciation Botanical names can be interesting and helpful if one cares to study them, for they indicate some of the relation-ships between one plant and another. There is no need to worry about pronunciation for, since most are made-up names, there is no such thing as a correct and incorrect way of pronouncing them. One can state what is common or sophisticated practice, but no more, and no one has a right to laugh if your pronunciation is different from his.

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