Whats 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
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 seed capsule.
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 in.
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.
Superstore to see its vast range of plants
with premission from Greenfingers.com