Let’s Think About Garden Latin

Edgeworthia chrysantha, named after Michael Pakenham Edgeworth. Photo by Kit Flynn.


Kit Flynn

Inevitably new gardeners ask me, “Why does the horticultural world insist upon inflicting ersatz Latin names upon us?” They point out that names such as Hakonechloa or Symphyotrichum are unpronounceable, that it’s much easier to say “Japanese Forest Grass” or “Aster.”

Turn to the 18th century to begin to make sense of the Latin names, as this is when Carl Linnaeus devised a system of plant classification that won out over a long line of competing approaches. At that time, botanists bestowed on plants long Latin names that described the plant and there was little agreement on which identification to use. The approach Linnaeus took greatly simplified the process by having the first name indicate the genus and the second name identify the species.

Today, when plant hybridization is at an all-time peak, the name of the cultivar or variety is usually placed at the end in single quotation marks. The first and second names are always italicized whereas the cultivar or variety name is not. Consequently, a variegated Solomon’s Seal looks likes this: Polygonatum odoratum ‘Angel Wing’.

In newspapers that follow the AP stylebook, single quotation marks (and periods outside of them) are frowned upon, so you will notice that cultivars are listed with double quotation marks. This is not an error on the part of the newspapers—they’re simply adhering to the consistency of AP style (or their own modified version of it), which has nothing to do with botanical names. And as noted on this site, the presence of any kind of quotation marks for the third word or name may be optional.

A gardener might be tempted to ask, “Why on earth can’t we just call it Solomon’s Seal?”

The problem lies with the common names. “Solomon’s Seal” doesn’t necessarily refer to a species in Polygonatum—it may also indicate a plant in Disporopsis. Likewise, “Coneflower” frequently refers to plants belonging to Echinacea, but it can also belong to members of the Dracopis, Rudbeckia and Ratibida genera.

Complicating matters, common names vary from region to region, changing over time. Often, they don’t make much sense. Why does Heuchera, a plant known for the color of its leaves, carry the common name of “Coral Bells”? Common names can also be confusing. “Japanese Forest Grass” is the beautiful Hakonechloa macra whereas “Japanese Stilt Grass” is the evil Microstegium virmineum, a grass I can assure you that you do not want under any circumstances.

Daisies are particularly confusing because nature has given us tons of different daisies, all from different genera. Comprising ten percent of all the flowers in the world, daisies may be Shasta Daisies, African Daisies, Gerber Daisies, Nippon Daisies, only to mention a few. To confuse matters, daisies aren’t necessarily white but come in a myriad of colors, so if you are searching for a particular daisy, using the proper Latin name will quickly identify the particular daisy in question. Otherwise, it’s like trying to find a daisy in a haystack.

Now relying on garden Latin names can also create confusion as botanists periodically take a sadistic pleasure in changing them. Stipa tenuissima (Mexican Feathergrass) suddenly switched genera, becoming Nasella tenuissima, due to some anatomical feature botanists had suddenly noticed. Sedum speciblis “Autumn Joy” unaccountably became the hard-to-pronounce, the hard-to-remember Hylotelephium Herbstfreude “Autumn Joy” or H. spectabile “Autumn Joy.” This probably indicates that there isn’t full agreement within the botanical community, but be reassured that eventually it will sort itself out.

Before you begin to despair of ever using garden Latin, also rest assured you already know the names of many genera, such as Aster, Canna, Chrysanthemum, Echinacea, Iris and Phlox. Many, such as Rosa, are readily apparent. Some names arise from the names of those who discovered the plant, such as Edgeworthia, in honor of Michael Pakenham Edgeworth.

Often the botanical names refer to a particular attribute of the plant. Solidago rugosa “Fireworks” is a goldenrod; “Solidago” combines two Latin words to mean “to make whole,” a reference to the medicinal qualities of the plants in this genus, while “rugosa” refers to the wrinkled leaves. “Fireworks” is self-explanatory.

The botanical names are not mere whimsical inventions of demonic botanists; they have meaning, especially those names of species. Many such as “alba,” “aurea,” “caerulea” and “rubra” denote colors while others, such as “alpinea,” “arctica,” “canadenseis,” “japonica,” “Americana” and “sibirica” refer to a specific location of origin. Still others, including “compacta,” “gigantean,” “grandiflora,” “contorta” and “macrophylla” indicate a physical attribute.

What can be disconcerting is trying to pronounce those names that end in “ii.” Amsonia hubrichtii should be dissected this way: Amsonia is named after an American physician, John Amson, while the hubrichtii refers to Leslie Hubricht, who discovered this particular American species in Arkansas in 1942. The “ii” is pronounced ē-ī (think of the refrain in “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”).

The advantage of becoming familiar with the botanical names are many: (1) as already stated, many common names vary from region to region; (2) the entire world uses the same botanical name so it’s possible to read foreign garden catalogs or visit foreign gardens with some comprehension; (3) almost all good garden catalogs are sorted alphabetically by the botanical names rather than the common names; and (4) many of the common names are confusing. Are Butterfly Weed and Butterfly Bush one and the same or different plants?

I do admit that some of the words can be unnerving at first. It took me a while before Hakonechloa (Hakone = a Japanese region, chloa = grass) tripped merrily off my lips. And I am still working on Trachelospermum jasminoides, a.k.a., Confederate Jasmine. Despite its common name, that plant is native to China.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at howyourgardengrows@icloud.com.

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