New gardeners inevitably ask us: Why does the horticultural world insist upon inflicting an ersatz Latin upon us? They point out that names such as Hakonechloa are unpronounceable, that it would be much easier to call it by its common name, Japanese forest grass.
To answer this question, we have to return to the 18th century when Carl Linnaeus’ system of plant classification won out from a long line of competing approaches — and is the one we still use today. At that time, botanists gave plants long Latin names that described the plant. By simplifying plant classification so that the first name indicated the genus while the second name identified the species. Linnaeus greatly simplified the process.
In giving plant classification a semblance of order, Linnaeus created a system that the whole botanical world eventually accepted.
Today, in an age of massive hybridization taking place, the name of the cultivar or variety is usually place in non-italicized script between single quotation marks. This greatly simplifies the quest for finding a specific plant in a genus or family that has many cultivars. The cultivar name differs from the common name, but at least is intelligible.
Please note: Following the “AP Stylebook” rules, we have decided to dispense with quotation marks in indicating the cultivar name.
The problem with relying upon the common name is that often they are unreliable. The common name “coneflower” frequently refers to Echinacea, a genus of widely available plants. However, “coneflower” can also refer to members of Dracopis, Rudbeckia and Ratibida genera, greatly confusing the issue.
Complicating matters, common names vary from region to region, changing over time. While many of us are familiar with Yucca, we would be hard pressed to identify “Adam’s Needle.” “Alumroot” and “Coral Bells” are common names for Heuchera, but neither common name identifies the species.
Daisies are particularly confusing because nature gives us tons of daisies, all from different genera. Comprising 10 percent of all the world’s flowers, there are Shasta Daisies, African Daisies, Gerber Daisies and Nippon Daisies to mention a few.
Daisies can come in myriad colors, so if you are searching for a particular daisy, you will find using the proper Latin name quickly identifies the particular daisy in question. Otherwise, it’s like trying to find a daisy in a haystack.
Common names can also be confusing. Japanese forest grass is the beautiful Hakonechloa whereas Japanese stilt grass is the evil Microstegium, a grass I can assure you that you do not want near your garden, much less in it.
We admit that relying on the Latin names can create confusion, botanists periodically take a sadistic pleasure in changing them. Several years ago, they decided to split up the Aster genus, placing an awful lot of former asters in the unpronounceable Symphyotrichum genus. At this point, even Tony Avent, plant guru par excellence, rebelled by keeping former asters with asters. Go to the Plant Delights website, type in Symphyotrichum and you’ll see three entries, all called aster.
Originally, Leucanthemum x superbum Becky was a Chrysanthemum. Then botanists placed it in a new genus, Leucanthemum, but at last count Becky is slipping back into being a member of Chrysanthemum. Stipa tenuissima, a wonderful ornamental grass that flowers in the early spring, one day suddenly reappeared as Nassella tenuissima. This transition was relatively easy because Nassella is much easier to pronounce than Symphyotrichum so gardeners were able to keep up with the times.
At a loss as to how to pronounce Hakonechloa? Visit http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx and soon the name will trill merrily off your lips.
A friend of mine who taught at UC Santa Cruz swears that he knew of a botanist who named a plant Landroveriansis in honor of his Land Rover, but, alas, I have failed to substantiate this wonderful flight of fancy.
Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.