You are a gardener; you’re enamored with gardening, with flowers, with plants. People describe you as an ‘avid gardener’, ‘obsessed with gardening’. They may even refer to you as a gardening geek.
But to reach that next level of “gardenerd”, you have to embrace botanical names for a happier life, at least for a happier gardening life.
Yes, I’ve heard the excuses of why some gardeners don’t like to use the botanical names of plants.
Shall we go through those excuses and eliminate them?
You are afraid you’ll mispronounce the botanical names and everyone will gasp and point and laugh at you. How do you know your way of pronouncing these names isn’t the right way? Or maybe a name can be pronounced more than one way? I’ve heard my own last name pronounced three different ways. Even with ‘the family’ there are some who pronounce the name one way, and others who pronounce it a completely different way. No one laughs, it’s okay.
You think the botanical names are too hard to remember. Well, yes, some botanical names don’t just roll off the tongue and do take some effort to remember. You could help your memory by keeping a plant catalog so you can look up the botanical names, or just write them down somewhere, or just practice saying them and memorize them.
You think you’ll sound pretentious. You won’t sound pretentious to real gardeners. You’ll sound like someone who loves plants and wants to be sure you get the right plants for your gardens.
Now that we’ve removed the excuses, let’s review some good reasons to learn the botanical names of plants.
– Using the botanical name ensures that you’ll always get the plant you want when you go shopping (providing the seller labeled it correctly).
– Knowing the botanical name sometimes tells you something about the plant.
– Learning botanical names will give you more confidence as a gardener, and make it easier to talk to other gardeners, since you are using a common language.
– Embracing botanical names will lead to a happier gardening life.
To help you embrace botanical names, here a tiny bit of information on botanical names to get you started.
All plants are classified into families and family names generally end with ‘aceae’. You’ve heard of some of them, like Asteraceae is the Aster/Daisy family.
Within each plant family there are genuses (or genera if you prefer) and within each genus there are species. The botanical names that most of us learn are the genus and the species.
The genus name is usually a noun, and the species is usually an adjective that tells you something about the plant.
The correct way to write a plant name is to capitalize the Genus name and italicize the name in print or underline it if handwritten. For example, Helianthus is a genus in the Asteraceae family and an example of a species is annuus. That’s the common sunflower, which has the botanical name Helianthus annuus.
If there is a cultivated variety of a plant, it can be part of the name, too, and is put in quotes in plain text, following the botanical name, like Helianthus annuus ‘Monet’s Palette’.
Now, when two plants of the same genus are crossed to create a hybrid, the hybrid name is noted with an “x” between the genus and species, like Helianthus x multiflorus, which is the result of a cross between Helianthus annuus and H. decapetalus
Whew! That’s enough info to start embracing botanical names. If you aren’t quite sure you want to embrace them, you might be bleary-eyed by now.
But there’s more to know!
To make sure that a plant has only one official botanical name, there is actually an International Code of Botanical Nomenclature that can only be changed by the International Botanical Congress. And, to make sure they don’t rush into any botanical name changes, they only meet once every 6 years and require a 60% or greater majority to make a name change.
If you really are afraid to say a botanical name out loud, for fear of mispronouncing it, there are some websites that pronounce them for you like Fine Gardening and others that spell them out phonetically, like Botanary on Dave’s Garden. Or you can buy one of dozens of books on botanical Latin, such as Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn.
If you are already embracing botanical names, and some of my favorite gardeners are, you can help other do the same by never correcting their pronunciation of a botanical name in public; you should help them with it in private, but remember, they could be right!
If you are a gardener who is a still timid about using botanical names, give it a try, embrace the name, say it loudly, with confidence, and I promise, no one will laugh.
Embrace botanical names for a happier life!
I love botanical names because common names are reused for various plants so you don’t always know which plant is being talked about. That being said, your first excuse is the one I was thinking of just before I read it…it’s the one that slows me down.
Carol, I’m grateful you wrote about this. When I first started using botanical names, I was living in New York and I’m a southerner. I wasn’t taught proper phonetics either-errr. I had someone bash me over the pronunciation of Heuchera. I was pronouncing it hew che ra. That one scolding makes me cringe to this day when pronouncing a botanical name.
LOL! And if you have non-gardening friends and you pull out “Cucurbita” they’ll be impressed no matter how you pronounce it. 🙂
Rock rose says
Where was it I read that you should never correct someone for their miss pronunciation of Latin names? It is bad “form”. So feel free to have a go especially at the nursery. They’ll be impressed.
Anne At Large says
That is the ONLY reason I took Latin in college. I even convinced the prof to have a lesson on botanical Latin. I love not having to rely on common names. I just have enough background to fake it with confidence, though, and people rarely argue with me if I say stuff and it sounds weird. Although now I want to know how to say Heuchera?!
Celia Hart says
Thanks for stanting up for using botanical names. Here are just a situations I’ve found knowing the Botanical names invaluable:
– The RHS seed distribution list (25 free packets of seed for members) is just supplied in Botanical ‘latin’ names. To select the seeds you want you need to know the Botanical names!
– Talking to gardeners and plant/wildflower enthusiasts on travels abroad – we have a common language!!!
– Cross-referencing between wildflower books, gardening books, veg growing books – the boytancal names tell you so much more.
Victoria Summerley says
What a good post. I get Fine Gardening on subscription in the UK, so I can vouch for the pronunciation guide (there’s one in the magazine every month as well as the audio one on the website). I love Latin names because they’re so descriptive, and they carry so much history. And for those who are still allergic to botanical Latin, think of it this way: how would you like it if someone called you or your children by a completely different name just because they couldn’t be bothered to learn the real one?
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. The next time someone on Garden Web tells me “English please: we don’t all have botany degrees,” I’m pointing them to this. And then I’m going to judge them, silently, though if I’m being totally honest I suppose I should admit that I was doing the judging part already.
In fact, I added a link to this post to my sidebar, even. (under the header “Why all the Latin?”)
Robin Ripley says
Those are all very good reasons to embrace botanical names. I’m convinced. However, I happen to be a bit memory challenged, so even the common names sometimes elude me. I suppose I could resort to all types of markers in the garden.
For, Anne in Reno, it’s hoo-ker-rah like an owl. I know because I used to pronounce it wrong. A friend nicely corrected me.
It’s too bad we aren’t taught a little Latin in school. Only the homeschooled kids here know it. 🙂
When writing an article, I try to use both Latin and common names. It seems to make everyone happy.~~Dee
Excellent post, Carol! I’m going to have to bookmark this for a reference. Those two years of Latin in high school might come in handy now:)
This is a good one, Carol. One thing that has helped me remember the names of some of the plants that are more often referred to by the common name, like balloon flower, is writing the name on the blog. After several references, you kind of remember it, even if you are not learning how to pronounce it. When writing a post, I will google the common name if I am not sure about the spelling and copy and paste it. On the blog I think it is really important to use the correct name, for the many nationalities that read us to know which plant you are talking about. I also think the gardening magazines Horticulture and Fine Gardening use the botanical names mostly. That’s how I started learning them so I would know what the heck they were talking about.
Mr. McGregor's Daughter says
I'm going to break the rule & correct both Dee & Anne in Reno: it's prounounced Hoy-ker-uh, as it was named in honor of Heucher. (See Dan Heims' book on the genus.) That's where Botanical Latin really throws people, because the rules change for the prounciation of people's names. I've posted about this before as even that "rule" is ignored in the case of Forsythia – nobody calls it for-Seye-thee-uh. (Except me when I'm in a mood, & only to myself.)
Daphne Gould says
Gee I feel like I have to stand up for the common name. It is not that I dislike the Latin name. I took Latin in school so the Latin part doesn’t scare me. My degree is in chemistry, so I understand the importance of having a scientific name. But I really like the cultural aspect of common names. I like that they can change over time and that different parts of the country (and world) can call them different names. For example, on my bloom day page, my first photo was of Ghost Pipes (what I’ve heard them called in New England). Their Latin name is Monotropa uniflora. “Uniflora” is a boring descriptive. They only have one flower. But Ghost Pipes is so much more evocative and romantic. It plays with your emotions. It has other names too. Ghost Flower, Indian Pipes, and my personal favorite Corpse Plant (because if you damage the stem a little it dies into a slimly black mess very quickly). I just don’t know if my Fairies would play with something called “Monotropa uniflora”, but they would certainly love “Ghost Pipes”.
This is certainly inspiring. Even with common names, I’m sometimes embarrassed with my mispronunciation. Recently, someone who has many more years of experience in gardening came by my home and asked me what a plant was thinking it was a variation of an oregano or marjoram that I had trained upwards. It was Stevia. I have never been sure if it is a short e or long e sound and felt funny saying it. But now after I read your post, I realized that she didn’t even recognize the plant so I’m not sure why I was embarrassed! Plus, she didn’t seem embarrassed not knowing what the plant was. She just realized she hadn’t seen one before or grown it herself. I have a small patio garden, but this year did venture into more varieties. I plan on figuring out the botanical names of the varieties to help me in future. Thank you, much!
I’m now somewhat embarrassed for my Bloom Day post this month – too lazy to look up the Latin names I didn’t know. I’m still learning, and I’ll make more effort. I fully get all the reasons to use them and I also see the cultural side of common names. I think for the garden blog forum (because I’ve learned so much from so many of you) it IS important to use the proper name, so thanks for reminding us.
(Thanks for the link love.)
I’m not sure why I like botanical names or why I started using them along with the common ones. I think because they are more precise and more descriptive. I used to have a nice little book I picked up at the library sale on gardener’s Latin around here somewhere…can’t seem to find it now that I need it to come up with some examples.
Lisa at Greenbow says
Truly a doctor’s daughter talking here. You are quite right though. It does help when trying to purchase the plant you truly want.
Mr. McGregor's Daughter says
After thinking about it today (I wasn't thinking too well this morning), I must admit that if someone goes into a garden center & asks for "Hue-ker-uh," they will be pointed in the right direction. If they ask for "Hoy-ker-uh," they may get funny looks. Sorry Heucher, looks like you'll have to commiserate with Forsythe.
Thanks for the encouragement (and I call it “hew cher a” too, Anna :). I found the book, Gardener’s Latin, by Bill Neal to be an easy introduction to the meaning of Latin garden terms, so that you’re actually learning what the Latin describes, and not just memorizing by rote (never fun). That is something to carry *outside* the garden world!
I think using the Latin names are important so everyone is talking about the same plant. I hate it when I am on a vendor’s site or reading an article, and the botanical name is not given. If you are not familiar with the plant, there is often no way to look it up to see if it will grow in your area, etc. Thanks for this post. This is something we all need to be more aware of.
I love botanical names. I am thinking of making a sign for my garden…..”LATIN spoken here” 🙂
I can remember the common name or the latin name but not both at the same time. It’s a memory storage issue thing or my aging brain! I do always give the latin name when I introduce a plant…after that it’s common names.
Wow, Carol, you sure are asking us to embrace a lot this summer! I am a hit or miss gardener. Some plants I know their botanical names and use them, others the common name. The thing with common names is that there are often more than one plant with the same name. I know you are right and perhaps I will start trying to remember some more botanical names.
Carol Michel says
All, thank you for embracing botanical names! And, yes, Daphne, sometimes the common name is more ‘poetic’ and pleasing to read. I think what frustrates people is to not see ANY mention of a botanical name on something unless it is a plant that is really, really common, like tomatoes.
You are all good candidates to become ‘gardenerds’ by embracing botanical names!
Thanks for all the comments and additional thoughts!
Carol, May Dreams Gardens
A good post…it is important to try to use the botanical names to narrow down what you’re talking about. At the same time sometimes I don’t know or remember. I think it was mentioned, but repetition always helps (writing the botanical with the common name, or thinking about the botanical name when you see the common name). Some interesting comments about the meaning of both common and botanical names — for interest, both are important.
Being a lover of Australian native plants, I have to use the botanical names because most of them don’t have a common name. And when they do, the common names are often terribly dull, such as Native Fuchsia (Correa reflexa), which does an injustice to both plants.
And in the pronunciation stakes, what about fuchsia and dahlia? Neither Fuchs nor Dahl would recognise their names as they are pronounced here!
How do you come up with such clever posts, Carol? You are hilarious. Sorry, I’ll NEVER embrance botanical names, ever! I still have a hard time distinguishing the differences of the most common flowers you purchase in grocery stores. LOL! I can name a Geranium, though :o) And pansies, petunias, impatiens…
David Nolan says
you need this t-shirt: