What's in a Name?
Gardening is like the Magic Circle.
In the same way that magicians guard the secret of
sawing in half the girl in the shiny bikini, so we are
meant to respect the sanctity of nomenclature. (What?
Quite, what's that? It's the system by which
we name plants. That way, we can bandy a few Latin names
around at a barbecue and everyone's impressed. Mind
you, we could just trot out the names of a few Spanish
coastal villages and no one would be any the wiser.
To new gardeners, the whole system of botanical names
is completely baffling and that's how most gardeners
would like to keep it.
But it's time to spill the beans. Think of a plant
name like describing a car. Let's say you have a Ford
Escort 1.3GL. Now you immediately know something about
that car. For starters it has certain characteristics
that are common to all Fords. Also, this car is an Escort,
so you know what shape it is. On top of that it's a
1.3GL so we've narrowed it right down and we know how
big the engine is and whether it's got the basic trim
or a spoiler and alloy wheels.
Take any plant. Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora'
will do. Ford is the generic or genus name Hydrangea.
Escort is the species paniculata, and 1.3GL is the variety
or cultivar 'Grandiflora'.
Now unless they've been living in a cardboard box for
their entire lives, most people can recognize a Ford
at a hundred paces. There are a number of distinguishing
features, like the bonnet badge for example. Less people
could narrow it down to an Escort and fewer still would
know a 1.3GL if it ran them over.
Well, it's exactly the same with gardeners and plants.
They'll all know a Hydrangea but not everyone will recognize
the species paniculata and even less could pick it as
So, the next time some show-off gardening type points
knowledgably at a plant and throws a word at you, the
chances are they've done nothing more than pointing
at a passing car and yelling "Jaguar" or "Peugeot".
Botanical names are international and describe specific
plants, leaving no room for error. The names are derived from Latin and Greek
and so they actually mean something. Hydrangea is from
the Greek word 'hydor', meaning water, and 'aggeion'
translates as vase, in reference to the shape of the
Paniculata refers to the grouping of flowers - in panicles
- and Grandiflora means that those flowers are big.
And so we immediately know something about the plant
in question. Other botanical names may describe the
country of origin, like 'madagascariensis', the colour,
'purpurea', or the discoverer, 'livingstonia'.
But can't we just use nice simple, English common names?
No we can't. This system was devised by Carl Linnaeus
about three hundred years ago and it actually works
really well. Take Acer palmatum dissectum atropurpureum.
I'll accept it's a bit of a mouthful, especially when
compared to the common name: Japanese maple. But the
problem is that there are thousands of different Japanese
maples, so you don't know which one we're interested
To make matters worse, an individual plant could have
five different common names depending on where you are
in the country. And, don't forget, most of our garden
plants are from abroad so their common names won't even
be in English, they could be in Swahili or Sanskrit.
How confusing would that be?
Over the centuries the botanical system has been constantly
developed and improved by countless thousands of botanists
and, believe it or not, it's quite simple to get to
grips with the basics.
First you pick up the commonplace names like Audi,
Rover and Toyota. Then there might be a few really special
and unusual plants that you particularly covet. An Aston
Martin perhaps. You soon realize there's a particular
variety of it you really like and eventually you recognize
that one as a DB4.
Pretty soon you'll spot a tristar on a hubcap and instantly
know it's a Mercedes and before long you'll be able
to identify the species from the shape of headlights
alone. Plant breeders come up with new cultivars (or
cultivated varieties) all the time. Like that new squat
Mercedes A class for example.
A word of warning though. When you choose your plants,
just remember that some species like leylandii, Russian
vine and pampas grass have as much class as Ladas, Austin
Allegros and Datsun Cherrys.
If you want to to have a go at getting the feel of
some plant names browse through our Essential
Plants list, or if you want lots more detail Ask
George About Plants. Visit our Superstore
to see its vast range of plants
with premission from Greenfingers.com