A slug by any other name by Nick Turrell

January 21, 2016

in Articles, General Interest

Well, here’s controversial. It’s well worn debate, but it seems it won’t go away. Should we adopt (and create) common names for plants to save our blushes over the difficulties of using Latin names?

What do you think? I believe you predominantly use common names in America already? I guess you have to invent a lot of them?

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

Anne Wareham






Rosa Felicia. Veddw. Copyright Anne Wareham

Rosa Felicia. Or not.

Nick Turrell:

As a rule, gardeners have a track record for being a friendly bunch. We must be: the fundamental urge to nurture is strong with us. But this seems to disappear when it comes to encouraging beginner gardeners into the industry.  Ask the non-gardening masses what their favourite plants are and you’re much more likely to hear roses or lavender than Perovskia atriplicifolia or Ceratostigma willmotianum. Why is that? These plants are just as worthy of celebrity status but are known only to plantaholics. So what’s holding them back?  Just like Elvis or Madonna – for a plant to make it big in the eyes of the public it needs a catchy name.

Allium Purple Sensation at Veddw, copyright Charles Hawes

Allium Purple Sensation – you can cope with this?

Give a pretty plant a memorable name and it will become famous – Alliums are a perfect example, even the non-gardening masses are getting to know it and sales are up. But no matter how beautiful a plant is – if it has an unpronounceable name it will intimidate beginners and remain unheard of. If you’ve ever watched a new gardener grappling embarrassedly with the pronunciation of Sarcococca hookeriana var.humilis you’ll know what I mean.

At the 2015 Chelsea Flower Show the RHS Star Plant of the entire show was called Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Kilimanjaro Sunrise’.  Such an accolade is surely designed to boost sales?  But while it might be a thing of beauty, those new to gardening are no more likely to ask for it at the garden centre than they are to ask for Sisyrinchium striatum.

You have to wonder in these times of short attention spans why we still use Latin plant names at all? Nothing else in the world of gardening is referred to by its Latin name – they all have them but hostas are never ruined by Arion distinctus – it’s always just a slug.

Slug Copyright Anne Wareham at Veddw 001 s

Arion distinctus ….

Other industries have Latin names too, but wisely don’t use them – when was the last time you heard Jamie Oliver say “today I’m going to be roasting  a shoulder of young Ovis aries with Rosemary” ? And if you said to a neighbour, after hearing a blackbird singing, “Did you hear that lovely Turdus merula singing in the garden yesterday morning,” you’d get a strange look. The same is true of plant names; while casually dropping Anemanthele lessoniana into a conversation might make you feel intelligent it risks you appearing smug too.

Taxonomists insist that Latin plant names are essential because it is a universal language which enables those involved in commercial horticulture to order Verbascum bombiciferum from China and they’ll know what you mean.  But what’s the point of a universal language if only a select few use it?

 evening sun through trees in woods at Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham

Beech trees..

Some plants have proved that having a more accessible name doesn’t send the commercial world into meltdown – trees are known by their common names – ash, oak, beech.  Herbs, fruit and vegetables have done it too – rosemary, sage, thyme, leeks, potatoes, pears.  This is hardly surprising; the Latin name for carrots is Daucus carota subsp. sativa – can you imagine asking for that at the grocers?

If these plants have done it why can’t the rest of the plant world do the same?  And in so doing, make gardening more accessible to the masses? And if you are a beauty but have been saddled with a howler of a name, you change it. It worked for Norma Jean.

There must have been a moment in history when everyday creatures like the heron, or slug or eagle were given accessible names instead of their Latin ones. (or maybe the other way round? ed. ) Surely it’s not beyond the wit of man to do the same with garden plants.  With the garden industry in decline shouldn’t we be bending over backwards to encourage newcomers instead of putting them off?

Nick Turrell

Nick Turrell 2012 04

Articles by Nick Turrell





Then there’s this, of course…

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Helen Gray February 14, 2016 at 3:40 pm

Clearly this topic has got us all going hammer and tongs, but honestly? Are we not creating a conflict where none exists? The booming UK gardening retail sector would suggest that no one interested in putting a plant in their garden or window box is in the slightest bit intimidated by botanical nomenclature.

My enjoyment of classical music is not thwarted by my self confessed lack of any knowledge of musical theory or how to read music – I know what I like and I listen to it. I don’t doubt that, were I to devote the time to study the topic in greater depth, my enjoyment of the music would be increased, and I would derive genuine intellectual satisfaction through understanding the mathematical construction and cultural development behind the music, the musical conventions, and how one piece relates to another. But as it is I pootle along listening to Classic FM, aware that Radio 3 is there waiting for me if ever wish to become a bit more serious about it.

So it is with plants. We need to stop being embarrassed at knowing a little bit more than average – it’s only because we chose to make the effort.

Katherine Crouch January 26, 2016 at 9:52 pm

….and in Australia what I call PITTohSPOORum they pronounce peetOsprum and my friends in the US call HEMerohCALLis HEMrOKlis…….it is a joy to be multilingual in plant speak!

skr January 28, 2016 at 4:21 pm

So I pronounce pittosporum like an aussie eh? Interesting.

John Schucker January 28, 2016 at 4:37 pm

Hello, Katherine. I enjoy your sense of humor. Thank you for the levity. In what part of the US do you hear HemrOKlis? I usually hear HEMerohCALLis in this part of the Mid-Atlantic region which is how you indicate you are accustomed to pronouncing it.

Katherine Crouch January 28, 2016 at 5:52 pm

It’s been a few years since I was waddling home replete with southern hospitality in Savannah, Georgia. I think it was there…all the pronunciation websites suggest the other way. Maybe they also were of the cotton-eester persuasion but I can’t remember.
and I still do not know how to pronounce chusquea coleou, so I specify fargesia nitida instead. This may explain the popularity of roses and lavender over here. Us Brits have a tendency to be shy of mispronunciation, so consequently as a nation we are pretty poor at foreign languages of any kind.

John January 28, 2016 at 6:32 pm

I get round the pronunciation of “clematis” by saying those on the right of my arbour are “clemahtis” and those on the left are “clemaytis”. Those hem things are “daylilies”.

At least I can use the excuse that us WELSH actually pronounce things to fairly defined rules (which makes learning to speak Welsh comparatively easy compared to English). I mean, the English pronounce CH in chemist as C. So what about eating a box of Chocs? Any Welsh person knows how to pronounce “Bwlch”. 🙂

John Schucker January 29, 2016 at 2:10 am

Clearly I could also use a tutorial on the pronunciation of Welsh pronunciation. I was going to take a stab at Bwlch and suggest it might be something close to Book, but you’ve thrown me off course with the Chocs.

John Schucker January 26, 2016 at 3:58 pm

Yes, and merci a M. Rézeau for the link above. It certainly points up the inconsistencies in trying to pronounce botanical names and the inherent difficulty in the absence of one complete standard. But until there is the equivalent of something like the Académie française for botanical “Latin”, it seems it will always be thus…..So, I will continue to take my Italian approach to these names. Mrs. Verey is not likely to be within earshot any time soon. And if she were, I might simply respond as in the following quote from the article mentioned above:

I will probably continue to pronounce Achillea as ‘ak-ILL-ee-ah’ and not ‘ak-ill-EE-ah as Stearn says, because it sounds better to me. As a final point, and again quoting from the Jepson Manual, “When someone presumes to correct your pronunciation, a knowing smile is an appropriate response.”

annewareham January 26, 2016 at 3:27 pm

This has been a great, surprisingly wide ranging discussion – thank you everyone for your contributions.

I’m a little surprised though, unless I’ve..um – forgotten it, to see no reference to one of the problems with any kind of naming for some of us. I remember attracting great scorn and incredulity when I was giving a talk to a horticultural society and blanked out on Alchemilla mollis. Sometimes a common name comes to the rescue, popping into memory when the Latin name has escaped…

Though I, for one, am very grateful for PowerPoint, where names can be safely installed in the captions.

Sacha Hubbard January 26, 2016 at 3:44 pm

Oh yes! That does strike a chord, Anne re the common names acting as prompt sometimes. Anyway, some of them are so pretty that they’re worth an airing!

annewareham January 26, 2016 at 4:45 pm

Yes. There is such a vast difference between our traditional and often local names and the recent, rather desperate inventions of the hort industry. We should honour and remember the traditional names. Xx

Sacha Hubbard January 26, 2016 at 4:54 pm

Some names fill me with a sort of snobbish horror, I’m afraid. Salvia ‘Hot Lips’- I don’t like the plant, though it’s immensely popular with customers and the name makes me shudder!

annewareham January 26, 2016 at 5:13 pm

That’s one of the recent, rather desperate inventions of the hort industry……

Katherine Crouch January 26, 2016 at 6:57 pm

seed catalogue punnery is truly toe curling. Phlox of Sheep indeed. Also I am finding myself growing senile and waving vaguely at many familiar plants calling them ‘thingy-wotsit or Rosa Damdifino

Cheryl Cummings January 26, 2016 at 7:38 pm

Well maybe that’s a good enough reason to keep using both botanical and common names, gives us a fighting chance of remembering one of them …..

Paul Steer January 26, 2016 at 8:13 pm

Phew – glad it’s not just me.

John January 26, 2016 at 8:17 pm

I get round the forgetfulness of my advancing age by using in-your-face labels, positioned so they are only really visible in the winter when growth has died back a bit. In the summer, I have to flatten a plant or two with my size nines to get to the label. But, after a little wander around in a rainal interlude today (I just invented that r-word, it’s non-botanic(al)) I realised that all my labels use the botanical names.

I thought I’d mention labelling plants cos I know Anne swoons whenever she sees labels and I love giving people a good swoon.

Katherine Crouch January 26, 2016 at 11:36 pm

I used to leave off labels because I hated the look, then promptly forgot the name of my new treasure. I now double label, burying one to the hilt and one sticking out until I think I have learnt it. Then I forget it, but remember it again when it gets dug up for splitting / repotting / moving house. Then I forget to write it in the garden journal my Mum bought me 20 years ago and so on….

I do like the way East Lambrook Manor label their snowdrops. White etched on black, labels with holes at both ends, hairpinned flat to the ground. Invisible from afar, useful for reference….. damn, forgot my notebook….

Joseph Rézeau January 26, 2016 at 8:16 am

Oops, looks like this forum does not accept the IPA symbols and replaces them with question marks. Too bad! Please refer to the wiktionary URL mentioned in my post to see those symbols.
PS.- An interesting read about “the pronunciation of the scientific names of plants” to be found here: http://www.calflora.net/botanicalnames/pronunciation.html

John Schucker January 26, 2016 at 3:06 am

OH, DEAR! …. I am trying to mix too many different languages. Should have proof-read first. Before any Italians comment, I realize that if I am referring to rules, I should say molto chiare, not chiari……as rules are feminine in Italian. Mi dispiace!

John Schucker January 25, 2016 at 8:55 pm

I think everyone can agree that botanical Latin plays an invaluable role in identifying plants. The real issue is pronouncing it. I am reminded of an anecdote which Barbara Paul Robinson relates concerning this topic in “Rosemary Verey: The Life & Lessons of a Legendary Gardener.” Mrs. Verey, apparently a rather prickly person at times (homo sapiens var. spinosus), upbraided the author for the way she pronounced a plant’s botanical name, snapping at her that the name was Latin, not Italian.

When I was growing up and into adulthood, I sang in many choirs and often in ecclesiastical Latin. The rules of pronunciation as with Italian are molti chiari, or very clear. 5 pure vowel sounds and simple consonants (fewer characters than in English) which are sometimes combined to create other straightforward sounds. Latin pronounced this way is extremely easy to transcribe into written words, as is standard Italian. However, English speakers frequently anglicize Latin words, as people who speak other languages color their own versions of Latin. Hence there is such a thing as “German” Latin which some people advocate using when singing Latin texts of German composers like J. S. Bach. I once was speaking with a friend in Québec about the native amelanchier species she admired growing wild near the St. Lawrence river. I pronounced the genus a-ma-lan-ki-er as I have always heard it pronounced here in the US, but she, of course, said a-ma-lahn-shee-ay comme en français. Though Latin may not be Italian, is there another standardized language closer to Latin than Italian with Spanish a close second?

My custom is to pronounce Magnolia virginiana as mag-no-li-a vir-ji-ni-ah-na. But I usually hear people say vir-ji-ni-ay-na with the long “a” sound or sometimes the short “a” sound as in “at”. This, to my ear, is not nearly as beautiful. But, if we follow the Italian model of pronunciation, the genus would become man-yo-li-a which I never say myself or hear from other anglophones. In any case, I tend to pronounce the words the way I would like them to be pronounced, following the model I first learned as a young choral singer and in this manner I rarely hesitate at forming the words. But then a botanists name or another proper name will get into the mix and Siebold or Forsythe, for example, are not a very Latinate names.

Despite the obvious need for Latin names, the colorful common ones can be so entertaining and charming and richly evocative. Each spring, I have masses of Antennaria plantaginifolia popping up alongside the moss at the edge of my woods, but I never call them anything other than Pussytoes. Can you blame me?

Joseph Rézeau January 26, 2016 at 8:10 am

Hi John,

You write ” I once was speaking with a friend in Québec about the native amelanchier species she admired growing wild near the St. Lawrence river. I pronounced the genus a-ma-lan-ki-er as I have always heard it pronounced here in the US, but she, of course, said a-ma-lahn-shee-ay comme en français.”

Transcribed into the IPA system (International Phonetic Alphabet), the common French name for the serviceberry plant is indeed /a.me.l??.?je/. See https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/am%C3%A9lanchier.

However, as a French native speaker I would rather pronounce it /a.me.l??.kje/, if only to avoid the unpleasant similarity of the last syllable /?je/ with the French word “chier” (shit).

Does that count for raising the tone of the discussion, Anne?

John Schucker January 26, 2016 at 4:12 pm

LOL! Yes, Joseph! Extremely enlightening and very edifying. And an aside about the Amelanchier. It seems to have at least three common English names here in the US. One is Serviceberry and I have heard the following folkloric explanation for this which is given in Wikipedia but also debunked at the same time:

“A fanciful etymology explains the name ‘serviceberry’ by noting that the flowers bloom about the time roads in the Appalachian mountains became passable, allowing circuit-riding preachers to resume church services. A similar etymology says that blooming serviceberry indicated the ground had thawed enough to dig graves, so burial services could be held for those who died in the winter when the only way to deal with the bodies was to allow them to freeze and wait for spring. Both of these fanciful etymologies are unlikely to be correct since the term is attested for both English and New World species as early as the 16th century, well before settlement of English North America,[25] and serviceberry is far from unique in blossoming early in the year.”

Another common name is Juneberry, for obvious reasons. But the name I like to use locally here in New Jersey is Shadblow, so-called because it blooms when the shad swim from salt water up into fresh water rivers and estuaries which happens annually here along the Delaware River.

Julieanne Porter (@GwenfarsGarden) January 24, 2016 at 11:02 pm

I don’t see learning the Latin names in horticulture to be any different to learning the specific language for anything else. You name the industry and you can bet they have all their own terms and language for describing the work they do. Having temped in goddess knows how many places when I was younger, I had to quickly pick up the lingo so I could do my job. It’s really not that hard. I mean, learning specific football terms doesn’t put anyone off football.*

With absolutely no previous experience or knowledge of plants or horticulture, I found it fun to learn the Latin names when I got into gardening. It didn’t put me off, It was just part of learning a new thing.

*I’m put off by football for entirely different reasons 😉

Joseph Rézeau January 24, 2016 at 5:34 pm

As a French native speaker, former English language teacher and amateur gardener this topic of plant naming appeals to me. In his provocative (?) article, Nick Turrell happily mixes up contexts. It would of course be ridiculous to ask for a pound of Daucus carota subsp. sativa _at the grocer’s_. But I do find it equally ridiculous or at least lacking in professionalism to find a Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum plant labelled “Viorne à fleurs blanches” _at my local garden center_.
Nick writes “But what’s the point of a universal language if only a select few use it?”
Others have already answered this question in their comments, and I totally disagree with the view that Latin/scientific names of plants are used only by a “select few”. That may be a view expressed by someone whose native language is English, but it so happens that there are many people-and many gardeners-in the world who do not speak English. As has been mentioned in this thread, Spanish speakers (and French ones) will find most Latin names easier to pronounce than English speakers (not to mention speakers of languages not using a Latin alphabet).
Strangely, Nick says nothing about the fact that names of cultivars are never Latin(ized) words but words in the language of the country were those cultivars were obtained, e.g. V. ‘Kilimanjaro Sunrise’. This use of the vernacular can be a counter-argument to Nick’s reasoning, as in the real-life case of the assistant at my favorite nursery who has no problems with pronouncing Latin names but was glad I helped her with the prononciation of those foreign names for cultivars!
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Shakespeare was at the same time right and wrong. Yes, a rose can grow and smell sweet whatever we call it or even without being named at all. But once it’s been named a “rose” in a given language, the mere use of that word will evoke the flower and its scent.
I will continue to buy and eat “carrots” and to enjoy the masses of “Daucus carota” in flower at the roadside on my bicycle tours.

Katherine Crouch January 24, 2016 at 2:52 pm

One more little thought. A common name for rhodochiton atrosanguineum is so splendidly politically incorrect that the panel on Gardeners’ Question Time got into terrible trouble for sniggering about it on Radio 4. Can anyone suggest an apt and descriptive common name for this lovely annual climber that does not cause such offence?

Joseph Rézeau January 24, 2016 at 10:40 pm

This site http://nature.jardin.free.fr/grimpante/on_rhodochiton.html lists the following common names for this plant: ‘Twining Rhodochiton’ ‘Purple bellerine’, ‘Purple bells’, ‘Mexican shell vine’ and mentions it’s also sometimes erroneously called ‘Chinese purple bell vine’.
There is no embarrassment when the “Latin” name is pronounced (actually it’s of Greek origin), since the “ch” in Rodochiton should sound /k/. One more argument for using scientific names against common ones, don’t you agree?

Katherine Crouch January 25, 2016 at 9:08 am

they missed out ‘black man’s willy’……..

annewareham January 25, 2016 at 9:39 am

Thanks for raising the tone of the discussion, Katherine. Xxx

Katherine Crouch January 25, 2016 at 9:25 pm

always a pleasure!

John January 26, 2016 at 8:21 pm

I’ll lower the tone even further by referencing the white-stemmed bramble.

But then I’ll raise it again by including a free jar of Vaseline. (Katherine should include two jars given her reference!)

Katherine Crouch January 26, 2016 at 11:41 pm

fnarr fnarr! Christmas box and stone pine is all I can come up with at short notice. As it were.

Joseph Rézeau January 25, 2016 at 9:55 am

Ha, I’d missed that one out myself. As Shakespeare would have put it “And thereby hangs a tale”.

Bill January 24, 2016 at 7:50 am

PS. Are we all done now. There is a weed over there.. Got it!

Bill January 24, 2016 at 7:35 am

Opps should be a full stop here… “Real plant names. Common plant names..”

Bill January 24, 2016 at 7:33 am

So think on this.. If your body parts were labelled by common local names, then you might have the hard bits (Bones) The soft bits (Flesh) The outside bit (Skin) The red stuff (Blood) Etc.. Imagine a consultation with a doctor if you went in and talked about having a pain. Exactly how would you explain if we did not have the correct word…

Homemade witchcraft. Plant names matter. Real plant names common names are for the ignorant. So learn and learn over your whole life. Learn the proper name and your life will be richer for it.

Cheryl Cummings January 24, 2016 at 12:07 am

I completely agree that the number of gardens in Britain and the area they cover could have a significant beneficial impact particularly in restoring the numbers of some of our native species of plants and animals as part of the ecosystems and food webs they would create if managed with that aim in mind.
However this ideal outcome would depend on the willingness of gardeners to learn more about how the natural world functions and understand their part in its success or failure. Unfortunately after over twenty five years of working with garden owners it’s been my experience that there are those willing to learn and those who are not. Although many are really keen to understand more about every aspect of their gardens including the names of their plants, those people who are the least willing to actively participate and are the first to reach for the quick fixes of pesticides and glyphosate, refuse to see any ‘weeds’ in the lawn as wild flowers are also those disinterested in learning the names of plants.

Paul Steer January 24, 2016 at 8:31 am

Arrrrgh ! Generalisation and polarization ! I know very few Latin names of both my weeds and cultivars – but they seem to forgive me . I am not looking for quick fixes and actively encourage the growth of natives where they wish to grow. I love diversity and know which foodlants are necessary for the caterpillars of many species of our butterflies and moths – yet I still cannot tell you the Latin name for many of our natives. Should I be ashamed in some way ? They still grow.

Sacha January 24, 2016 at 12:45 pm

Nobody should feel in any way ashamed if they don’t know botanical names, ever. It’s helpful to know them but ‘your’ professional helpers or advisers should know them, IMO.

Cheryl Cummings January 24, 2016 at 2:32 pm

I’m very sorry to offend Paul and of course there’s no shame in any lack of knowledge, but I just don’t get unwillingness to learn. I agree with Bill, learn, learn, learn, the more we know the more we understand and it’s not only our lives that are the richer for it.

Paul Steer January 24, 2016 at 10:58 pm

I am not offended – and understand the need for classification, research and science. I also love to learn. What troubles me is that the point of the article is about encouraging more people into discovering the love of making gardens for themselves, or have I misunderstood ? As a human race despite being able to label and classify everything that moves; we still seem to be unable to understand why we are destroying the very systems that support us. As Monty was saying – birds do not have any botany but they know where to find food. Giving plants names does not actually make them any more or less what they were before their names existed in our minds. People need to see touch and experience nature first in order to appreciate it and start on the road to learning – making mistakes along the way. There are peoples who live closer to nature than I ever will who probably have their own names for plants and work and live with them in sustainable ways that we can only dream of and who would not know latin or plant classification but have a wisdom far beyond ours.

Nick Turrell January 28, 2016 at 7:28 pm

Well said Paul. This comment and your previous one were spot on.

Therese Lang January 25, 2016 at 6:45 pm

No you should not…you understand your plants needs. You are a real natural gardener…you LOVE IT

We need more people to do that..Make it a joy not a chore

Paul Steer January 25, 2016 at 6:56 pm

Thank you – it is a joy .

Nick Turrell January 23, 2016 at 11:43 am

I completely understand that professional gardeners enjoy learning the botanical names of plants – I did but then I was interested enough to make horticulture my career. My point is that there are still plenty of keen but not obsessional amateur gardeners who are intimidated by botanical names and see them as a stumbling block. This isn’t because they are less intelligent; when it’s not your career you have less time to devote to it. Rather they are at the fragile stages of learning a new hobby and while the interest may be there, at this crucial stage should the industry be putting such difficult hurdles in front of them?

Neither am I suggesting we replace botanical names with common names; professional gardeners should learn the Latin names but could we also make a more accessible language more available to those still wearing their ‘L’ plates? Those who want to take their knowledge further will in time undoubtedly go on to learn the Latin – those who prefer not to won’t but they will at least have become more interested in gardening. If horticulture is seen as more accessible it might attract more of the non-gardening masses to become interested – whether they then remain amateur or go on to become professionals doesn’t matter. It isn’t about dumbing down horticulture, merely encouraging those who have some interest to take their interest past the easy entry level of common names and on to greater things. The fundamental aim should be to encourage more people to enjoy gardening and gardens. If the masses have a better understanding of their gardens it could lead to a better understanding of nature in general and that has to be a good thing.

There are 26 million gardens in the UK – that’s a formidable force if only we could harness it and work as a team against climate change, carbon emissions etc. Isn’t that what the RHS ‘Greening Grey Britain’ campaign is about?

Katherine Crouch January 23, 2016 at 4:53 pm

I think there is a general resistance to using unfamiliar terminology or technology when one is feeling fragile and unsupported in a new venture in any field. With my non-gardener garden clients, I take them round their new garden throughout the first year, indicating plants as they come into season, using common names where appropriate (rosemary not rosmarinus) and quietly use Latin names where a common name is not in common use (miscanthus not eulalia grass).

At each visit they will remember about 20% of the new names. As they engage with their new garden they start using the Latin occasionally but quite happily. As one said, ‘Kath, just look at the Acer palmatum dissectum now it’s turning orange – blimey, I’m starting to sound like a gardener!’

With gentle and persistent guidance I have familiarized husbands with washing machines and children with washing up, despite initial resistance. That’s much harder than introducing gardening Latin.

Cheryl Cummings January 22, 2016 at 10:05 pm

Call me old fashioned or maybe just old, I love Latin names!
They make sense of a plant, explain its origin, habit or history and most importantly give it a unique identity.
Yes some names are long and take a bit of effort to remember or pronounce but that’s what gardens and life itself are like, the more willing we are to put effort in the more rewarding they are.
There’s a fine line between accessibility and dumbing down and abandoning Latin plant names would seem to me the linguistic equivalent of the ‘low maintenance garden’!

skr January 22, 2016 at 9:43 pm

In which language are these common names going to be? Will it only be English? That sounds awfully colonial. Does each language get a common name? Will I have to learn the Spanish common names in order to communicate with my gardeneros?

Carla Black January 23, 2016 at 10:50 pm

skr, Yup, you have to learn the common names where you garden. I live in Panama and know common names here, but they’re different in every part of Central America. My guys are good at learning the botanical names, because the Latin-derived names are easy to pronounce in Spanish. In fact, I pronounce them in Spanish, and they come out much prettier than in American English. The botanical nomenclature rules say you are allowed to pronounce the words however you like. Love that rule.

skr January 24, 2016 at 7:21 pm

I disagree, I know only a handfull of common names and rarely even use them. I use scientific names exclusively especially when placing orders. The planting plans are all scientific names as well. Most of the plants I use don’t even have common names.

Katherine Crouch January 22, 2016 at 6:05 pm

Just learn your gardening for Fuchs sake!! Learn common names and Latin as you come across them, have a stab at pronouncing the ones with far too many vowels and be kind when a newbie gardener calls a cotoneaster a cotton-eester. Clemahtis or clemaytis? Pergler or pergohla? Use any and every language to communicate rather than to denigrate and it’ll work out fine.

but it’s secatuhrz not secateerz……wanders off muttering…..

Jungle Jen January 22, 2016 at 5:21 pm

It seems to me that if we want to correctly identify a plant, then it must be known universally by the same name to ensure accuracy. Especially important now… with DNA testing allowing us to rename some plants which were previously assigned to incorrect species, genus etc. Inevitably this has meant learning these new classifications, inconvenient maybe but nonetheless essential! Latin, Llinnaean Binomial Nomenclature, is the only sensible way to name plants accurately.

Fuchsiarius January 22, 2016 at 5:16 pm

Sorry. That should be De Historia Stirpium. Mea culpa.

Fuchsiarius January 22, 2016 at 5:13 pm

Oh, the perennial debate over “Latin” vs. “common” names for plants. And here I thought Leonhart Fuchs [you didn’t think I wouldn’t weave the namesake of the Fuchsia into the debate, did you?] had dealt the issue a firm blow when he sent us done the road to sanity with his superbly illustrated De Historium Stirpium in 1542. As a physician and professor, he was trying to address a serious problem that wasn’t just annoying but could have deadly consequences for patients elsewhere. The profusion of common names made it hard to recommend plants for medicine and treatment even from city to city, let alone between states and countries. At a time when learned doctors were actually speaking Latin as their common ground. Yes, common names can kill. [Mmpff]

Anyway, I find that part of the problem seems to lie in our vocabulary. Botanical names use Latin, mostly, but aren’t Latin in any meaningful sense. Heck, they’ve long cannibalized Greek and people’s names and are now well into other modern languages, common and uncommon. Botanical names are not a language. They’re simply a useful universal naming system based in Latin. Personally, I often call it botanical Latin. As for pronunciation? These are frequently book words. Seen, but never heard. Don’t like one way of saying Paeonia mlokosewitschii? Ask for a second opinion. It’ll be different. Guaranteed. You might say tomahto and I might say tomayto and we both still manage to get the same piece of plastic in the winter.

And then those pesky common names. As we all know, they’re often anything but common. More like assorted names in a common tongue. Somewhat. Somewhere. Because whose common tongue are we speaking? One of the myriad dialects of the British Isles? Australia or South Africa? Maine or Alabama? What if English isn’t your first language of gardening? What then? Shades of Fuchs. I want to end up with enchanter’s nightshade. Not the deadly one.

Here’s a slight suggestion. It might be better to just stop saying “Latin” vs. “common” and to think of any particular plant name as being either a “universal” or a “local” one. Far more clear and accurate.

Fuchsiarius January 22, 2016 at 5:29 pm

Sorry. That should be De Historia Stirpium. Mea culpa.

Therese Lang January 22, 2016 at 4:51 pm

Having a reference to plants in Latin means that it is valid no matter where you are in the World.I feel that is crucial.

We need the common names too so as not to terrify new aspiring gardeners. Why can we not stick to using both.

skr January 22, 2016 at 3:57 pm

I think we need an international blue ribbon committee to sit down and assign unique names to every species. Considering the difficulty taxonomists have agreeing on anything, they should be done right around the time the sun goes supernova.

Loretta DeMarco January 22, 2016 at 3:48 pm

I live in America where common names are different depending on the region in which you live. Leave the area in which you live and you will encounter common plant names that you have never heard before. Leaving the country can leave you horticulturally dazed and confused. So using only common names is not an option for a serious home gardener. By “serious” I only mean a person who has gardened for a bit and loves plants and his/her garden. Botanical names help us find the right plant. The one we actually want. People are smart enough to know that one does not have to use botanical names when talking to new gardeners. That’s just common sense. But one needs to eventually learn some of them. Also, I come down solidly on the side of lifelong learning. Dumbing down subjects aids no one. Learn botanical names as you choose to. Or don’t. It’s all good. In the end it’s all about the plants.

James Golden January 22, 2016 at 2:33 pm

By all means keep botanical names. Give them common names, if they need them,, but they are confusing and meaningless among garden makers.

Carla Black January 22, 2016 at 11:17 am

Then, when we want to make a healing tea from our gardens, common names become positively dangerous! But common names are sometimes useful in conversation, and I often use both, at the risk of sounding smug. While we’re nit-picking, scientific names are sometimes derived from Greek or other languages, so “Latin” itself is a kind of common name…

Helen Gazeley January 22, 2016 at 10:58 am

Last time I looked, Perovskia was Russian Sage and Ceratostigma was plumbago, and they’re both in nurseries and garden centres. You might as well ask why the average person says their favourite bird is the robin, instead of the Emberiza citrinella (or yellowhammer). Most of it is to do with how common something is, and people’s familiarity with it. Roses are everywhere, plumbago is not.

Bit of a spurious argument, saying that other subjects don’t use Latin names. The average person will say blackbird or slug. However, get a more interested birdwatcher or someone who needs to know exactly what slugs are munching their way through the lettuces and, chances are, you’ll venture into more precise labelling and Latin will enter the scene.

The horticultural world is full of varieties that need distinction but the Vibernum ‘Kilamanjiro Sunrise’ will be labelled such in garden centres, which seems clear enough and that is, I’d say, what the average person will call it. I presume we’re not saying that Vibernum is too hard for the average person?

I’m totally with Karen Gimson here. I get fed up with it being assumed that no one can cope with anything that looks slightly challenging. The point is whether someone is interested. If you’re interested in a subject, you learn about it. If you’re not, you might find out about the basics but that’s it. Finding a whole lot of common names for plants which don’t have them isn’t going to make people interested in them, but if they are interested they’ll eventually gain a great deal more from the Latin names than they will from the common ones.

Bill January 22, 2016 at 8:45 am

You think you have a problem with ‘Latin’ and common-names of plants. I live in Eastern Europe and use the Cyrilic Alphabet..! When talking to locals and plants people.

Paul Steer January 21, 2016 at 11:20 pm

Right, I should say at the outset that I am one of those creatures often referred to as ‘the general public’. I have as much botany as a bird {as Monty Don once said}. However I love making my garden and despite not knowing Latin names I believe I am making something beautiful – with the help of nature of course. I respect that horticulturists and the horticultural industry do indeed need to know the proper names for plants but for people such as my common one brain-cell self – what is wrong with having a common descriptive name ? I think Nick Turrell in this humerous article is not trying to dumb down or do horticulturists out of their expertise – rather he is trying to open up garden making to a wider audience. It is up to ‘the general public’ if they wish to pursue it further – like all learning there has to be a starting point.

Paul Steer January 22, 2016 at 10:39 am

Humorous! See 1 brain cell.

annewareham January 22, 2016 at 10:41 am

There slips up a medic. Want me to put it right?

Paul Steer January 22, 2016 at 12:18 pm

A plaster cast maybe…

Catherine January 21, 2016 at 10:28 pm

Online information about plants that’s now accessible world-wide is very much USA and UK dominated. In other countries (like Australia where I live), searching for a plant by its common name is very likely to give results about a plant that’s not what we describe by that same common name. Confusion reigns. When you get a newbie image researcher on a dumbed-down mag that only uses common names, the results are both hilarious and cringe-worthy. “But is says it’s a ‘marigold’!” “Yes, but it’s what the English call a marigold. That’s a ‘pot marigold’ or Calendula, not our marigold, which is always Tagetes”. Or a ‘beech’ which here is a Nothofagus, or a mountain ash which here is a towering eucalypt not a Sorbus as it is in the US – it goes on and on. So WHOSE common names will prevail in an increasingly homogenous online world?
An Australian friend recently went to a large open garden in northern France. He speaks no French, and the owner very little English. But there were signs listing the botanical name of each plant in a bed. They were both delighted to be instantly communicating through the universality of those Latin names.
And I agree with Christine. If you can master saying and spelling chrysanthemum you can manage any Latin.

Sylvia Marden January 22, 2016 at 12:43 pm

I think you just said what I was struggling to say. My husband (with no Greek) had a long conversation about plants with an old Greek man with no English in a small nursery in Crete in Latin! and they understood each other quite well.

Valerie Lapthorne January 26, 2016 at 6:03 pm

Did similarly with a South American in his nursery when we had a stroll through his precious plants. His only English was “Chelsea!”.

Latin is descriptive too, naming the characteristics of the plant.

And why should it be assumed that the “masses” need dumbing down to.

Ben Probert January 21, 2016 at 9:48 pm

I’ve all but given up trying with this one. Horticultural retailers and ‘leaders’ have already vocally had the final word; we need to ditch these complicated names because people are too stupid to learn them. It’s the same with other parts of horticulture; push people away from any topic or technique that might need to be tackled by someone with more functioning brain power than a sprout.

Personally I still hold out for the botanical names, but then I’ve been told I’m out of touch with real gardeners more times than I can remember, especially when debating this topic (why DO people get so angry?!). For me the idea that new gardeners are inherently too stupid to understand anything but simple monosyllabic horticulture is offensive, but it’s the line the industry toes.

All I would say is maybe, just maybe, education isn’t all lost? When I was in retailing I would often be given bits of paper with carefully written out botanical names. Customers knew that the plant on the paper was what they wanted, but just didn’t know how to pronounce it. These are often the same people who order food in the local language when they’re on their holidays, people who have careers filled with acronyms and industry specific terminology, and people who know how to pronounce George Alagiah, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (the guy who runs the convenience store in The Simpsons). What’s the difference between these things and horticulture? Education!- people grasp new words and ideas through learning. Maybe rather than reducing horticulture to its lowest common denominator we should help people learn what they need to know?

PS, if you want to try out some questionable ‘youth’ music try Iggy Azalea!

Christine dakin January 21, 2016 at 8:04 pm

Many ‘amateur’ gardeners say they don’t like using Latin names but they are always a bit nonplussed when I point out that they know quite a few already. Most people know rhododendron, delphinium, camellia, viburnum and chrysanthemum. So why the reluctance to learn more? It certainly helps when looking up information about a plants requirements, height, time of flowering and so on.
I agree that it’s a problem when the ‘experts’ change names. Does anyone remember when chrysanthemums were split into several different groups? And then changed back again a year or two later.

John January 21, 2016 at 6:12 pm

Context is king! Deciding that a plant has to have a different name, genera, whatever simply because someone has realised that a few hairs on a seed pod are actually attached to the pod like that instead of like this is great for the experts aiming for their edification over other experts but is infuriating to many. The simple names tend to last longer (though even they are not immune to change!). But often, when choosing a plant, the differences between that cultivar and this one are indicated more by the Latin name. So I often start with a common name, get the Latin and check that out to make sure I’m getting the version that will fit and not the giant thug!

Sacha refers to differences in common names between UK and America. It’s often the case that different parts of the UK have different common names for the same plant! Indeed, different online retailers give the same plant different names (though often without Latin names so we are doomed!)

Sylvia Marden January 21, 2016 at 6:00 pm

No-one said that the Latin names generally describe properties of the plant. i.e.
rubra = red, Palmatum = like a hand, etc.
Common names can be used for different plants in different parts of the world and lead to confusion.
If you are looking for a specific plant you need the Latin name to ensure you get the correct one.

Katherine Crouch January 21, 2016 at 9:45 pm

I love looking through the Chiltern Seeds catalogue and coming across unfamiliar Latin. lachnophylla = downy leaves. Caespitosa = growing in dense clumps Pulcherrimum = prettiest loads of fun!

Sacha Hubbard January 21, 2016 at 3:36 pm

I’d say our customers are pretty evenly divided between those who use Latin names and those who use common names. What drives them – and us – insane, is when those names are changed suddenly, so the lovely sounding Lippia citrodora becomes the rather bossy-boots Aloysia triphylla. But I’d plump for sticking with Latin names simply because then, wherever you go in the world, you’re talking about the same plant. For example, in parts of USA, mimosa is Albizia julibrissin (when it’s not being a Buck’s Fizz). This would come as something of a surprise to any Briton buying what they think is an Acacia. What does need to be overcome, I think, is the perception that people who use Latin names are somehow being ‘posh’ or ‘snooty’. It’s not essential for the average gardener to know them but it does help nurserymen and women if they do, because they can more accurately identify what it is that customers want.

Susan in the Pink Hat January 21, 2016 at 3:32 pm

Given you have a choice. Many of the western U.S. plants I use don’t have common names which are universally accepted. Sometimes the common name is necessary because the Latin is so terrible–Penstemon murrayanus anyone?

Voyage around my Radish patch. January 21, 2016 at 4:50 pm


Sacha Hubbard January 21, 2016 at 5:41 pm

Nothing wrong with Penstemon murrayanus. Try pronouncing ‘Pinus’ correctly… 😉

karen gimson January 21, 2016 at 3:31 pm

Why does everyone always want to take the challenge out of everything. Learning is fun. Nothing worth having is easily achieved. At least that’s what we were taught at Brooksby College. And I thank my lucky stars that I had enthusiastic, talented and knowledgeable teachers who helped us through. We had to put little jars of plant samples on every stair at home- and weren’t allowed to step over them until we’d remembered their Latin name. I spent a lot of time standing on those stairs. But I’m glad I did, because having the knowledge gives me confidence to justify the charges I make for my services. I’ve spent my career trying to persuade people to take horticulture seriously and to reward knowledge, experience and training. Giving up on the difficult bits would be a backward step, in my opinion. Sorry to be boring, but I’ve watched students gain confidence and blossom when they have mastered something they’ve found difficult. We need to reward and encourage and keep standards high. Not just give up.

Voyage around my Radish patch. January 21, 2016 at 4:49 pm

Splendid comment Ms Gimson.

karen gimson January 22, 2016 at 4:42 pm

Thank you. I have never met anyone who says they regret education. What do others think?

annewareham January 22, 2016 at 5:05 pm

Hard to imagine, if only because it must make it easier to go on educating yourself.

Cherie Southgate January 22, 2016 at 11:02 am

I’m absolutely with you on the need for professionals to learn their specific language. I know how much pleasure it gave me when I got 98% in a plant identification test – I dropped the 2% on a spelling grrrrrr.

You made exactly the point I’d have made about the use of common names – they are only common in their particular region, step into anothe county and they refer to something else – fascinating in itself but not helpful in identifying a given plant.

However I have sympathy with the need for simpler names – I don’t particularly think it’s useful to use terminology that is obfuscating and patronising towards people who have interest but not the professional background to know the Latin terminology.

Nicky Fraser January 23, 2016 at 8:53 am

Well said Karen. At college (Brooksby) I loved the challenge of learning all those scientific names and they all have a meaning. Please let’s not dumb down gardening because people can’t be bothered to put in a bit of effort.

Katherine Crouch January 21, 2016 at 3:18 pm

Mmm, not easy that one. Anyone my age (56) grew up to be bi-lingual when it came to decimalization, so I am quite happy to call a carrot a carrot and order beer in pints, and measure the canopy spread of an Acer griseum in metres.

In Australia, where every second plant is eucalyptus or leptospermum, they use common names mostly.

In Britain we have been naming plants for centuries, with regional variations, so common names such as Batchelor’s Buttons may refer to several plants. Not much help to a botanist using the common names there.

Actually the taxonomists make up the Latin names as well. Nothing will convince me than the Romans knew all the plants of the world. Picture the scene – a late Friday night in the The Botanist by Kew Gardens, all the taxonomists several pints down and one cries out ‘oh no, we forgot to name those new plants this week, anyone got any ideas?’

Try saying musa basjoo, chusquea coleou or Lonicera nitida Baggesens Gold as if you were very drunk and it will all make perfect sense….

Jilly Reid January 22, 2016 at 12:19 pm

I have thought about this too. I think with the genetic profiling of plants and probably all the animal kingdom to come, there will be a more logical profiling of plants. Until that time the Latin/Greek based international scientific vocabulary seem to cover most plants and animals. The Linnaean system is constantly being updated but at least we do have a system of binomial nomenclature to follow.

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