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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