As if we were about to get a tooth pulled without
Novocaine, most of us are led kicking and screaming into the world of botanical
nomenclature. Give us flowers, give us trees, just don't give us Metasequoia
glyptostroboides. Botanical names are difficult to learn, hard to pronounce,
and taxonomists keep changing them anyway, so why should we learn them?
a reason. In fact, here are several: cherry
laurel, spurge laurel, mountain laurel, Portuguese laurel and California
laurel; crape myrtle, wax myrtle, ground myrtle and box-leaf myrtle. Are any of
these laurels? Are any myrtles? Not a one.
Botanical nomenclature is a universal language. Gardeners
can go anywhere in the world and converse about plants without trying to figure
out that "kiss-me-at-the-gate" is a regional name for the herb
Saponaria. And I don't even want to know why some people call Campsis radicans
Most of the words in plant names are based in Latin, but
many Greek words appear, such as Chaenomeles for flowering quince. Japanese
also makes an appearance in words such as Tsuga for the hemlock genus.
many scientific plant names contain people's names or
the names of places. For example, Viburnum davidii and Davidia involucrata are
both named for Armand David, a French missionary to China. Fuchsia is named for
the German doctor Leonhart Fuchs. Viburnum x bodnantense is named after
Bodnant, a garden in Wales. But don't assume too much: I once thought Cornus
florida meant that the Eastern dogwood was native to the state of Florida. In
fact, "florida" means profusely flowering in Latin.
The words in a plant name may also describe
The word "mollis" means soft and is an apt moniker for lady's mantle,
Alchemilla mollis, because of its velvet-soft leaves. Plant names can also tell
what a plant looks like, such as the heart-shaped leaves of Tilia cordata.
we talk about plants, we're using a classification
system developed in the 18th century by the early botanist Carl von Linné (or
Linnaeus). Linné grouped plants according to reproductive characteristics.
Today we still use this system though the criteria for classification has
evolved. Cascading down from broadest shared characteristics to more closely
related are the hierarchy of kingdom, division, class, order, family, genus,
species and subspecies. Varieties, hybrids, and cultivars are also related to
in the botanical naming system.
The family name ends with "aceae" and denotes
some kind of closely related genetic characteristics. For example, Asteraceae
is the name of the composite (daisy) family. Sometimes taxonomists refuse to go
along with the standardized endings and continue to use the old names for many
plant families. That's why you may still see Asteraceae listed as Compositae.
"Binomial" is the
term used to describe the
two-word plant name. A binomial contains the genus, the next subset of the
family category, and the name for the first word. Species (or specific epithet)
is the name for the second word and is a subset of the genus category. In the
binomial Cornus kousa, Cornus is the genus and kousa is the species or specific
epithet. Put the two words together and you have the genus and species of the
Korean dogwood. Prunus (plums, cherries, apricots) and Crataegus (hawthorns)
are two genera (plural of genus) in the rose family, Rosaceae. Occasionally, a
family will have only one genus: Ginkgo biloba is the only member of
The genus Rosa contains about 150 different species,
including our native Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) and R. mulliganii, named for
Brian O. Mulligan, former director of the Washington Park Arboretum.
When there are naturally occurring
variations within a
species, the species is divided up into subspecies or varieties. The groups are large,
geographically; the characteristics are markedly different. The shore pine, Pinus
contorta, and the lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta var. latifolia, are two
extremely different-looking examples of this species.
A hybrid is a cross between two species.
occur naturally, such as Arctostaphylos x media, which is a cross between
kinnikinnik, A. uva-ursi, and hairy manzanita, A. columbiana. Some occur accidentally
Plants with native ranges that do not overlap are able to hybridize when
brought into close proximity. This happened with two California species of silk
tassel, Garrya fremontii and G. elliptica. They crossed themselves in a garden
on the Eastside of Lake Washington, and the resulting plant is G. x
issaquahensis. Other crosses are done on purpose to get a better plant--bigger
flowers, redder tomatoes. The "x" in the name is a clue that the
plant is a hybrid, but that clue is sometimes left out on nursery tags and in
books or catalogs.
Rarely, two genera will cross to create an intergeneric
hybrid. One example is x Heucherella. Another accidental garden hybrid, it's
the cross between coral bells, Heuchera, and one of foamflower, Tiarella.
Plants listed as x Heucherella share characteristics of both parents. Note that
when the hybrid is intergeneric, the "x" is placed at the beginning
of the name.
Beyond genus, species and hybrids, the most common plant
name we see is the cultivar--those labels written in single quotation marks,
such as the 'Peace' rose and 'Stella d'Oro' daylily. Cultivars--a contraction of the words "cultivated"
and "variety"--are forms of a plant; they don't relate to the
scientific classification, but are horticultural designations.
may have a natural origin, such as the
pink-flowered form of the Eastern dogwood, Cornus florida. The pink flowering
dogwood is a naturally occurring plant that is in the minority, because most
Cornus florida trees in nature have white flowers. Pink forms have been taken
into regular breeding programs and the result is a multitude of different kinds
of pinks. When particularly lovely plants are found and breeders want to make
these forms available to us, the plants are propagated asexually, which
includes tissue culture, grafting and cuttings, in order to keep the desired
characteristic true. These casual variations, such as the pink flowers of a
dogwood, do not often come true from seed.
Cultivar names aside, the changeable science of
nomenclature is what causes gardeners to throw up their hands in despair of
learning plant names. There's no denying that the whole subject is ripe for
parody. The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) has had a total of nineteen
different names since it first it was collected by Archibald Menzies during Captain
Vancouver's 1791-95 voyage. Our dear garden mums were switched from
Chrysanthemum to Dendranthema, a change that took place 40 years ago, but took
a few decades to sift down to the gardeners' level. But by then, the scientists
had heard an outcry from we mere mortals, and the name was changed back to
Chrysanthemum. Now it will take awhile for the literature to catch up.
Certainly the most fun with
botanical names must be found
in Edward Lear's The Complete Nonsense Book (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1912). Here
is where we find drawings such as
the one of a delicate, pendulous bloom of what looks like a bleeding heart.
But, instead of pink hearts, there's a string of people with their feet tied to
the stem; ah, it is of course, Manypeeplia upsidownia. And another shows the
triangular porcine bloom of Piggiwiggia pyramidalis.
See, it's not as scary as you thought. Look
up a few
plant names--plants you have in your garden-- and practice saying them to
anyone who will listen. "Here is my Rosmarinus officinalis--that means
rosemary was used as a medicinal herb by the Romans, you know." Practice
saying them to the cat. Practice
saying them to imaginary visitors. Start dropping the names in casual conversation--"I've
so enjoyed my Parthenocissus henryana this year!" It won't take long
before you're hooked.