No one knows how to pronounce the word clematis. I pronounce it KLEM-UH-TIS but many others pronounce it KLEE-MAH-TIS. The truth is, there’s no real, 100% correct way to pronounce it, as we have no one who still really speaks Latin to correct our pronunciation the way Parisians do when I try and use their native tongue to get directions to Giverney or to purchase a baguette. The fact is, that unless you are reversing the syllables or dropping them (as I sometimes am guilty of doing) it is always better to ask for a plant by its botanic name instead of its common one, even if you mangle the Latin a little in the process.
The reason is simple. Plants have far too many common names and they are super confusing. Doesn’t a garden filled with Our Lady in a Boat, Chinese Pants, Venus’s Car, Lyre Flower, Bleeding Heart and Lady’s Locket sound super? Like a fabulous cottage garden filled with the most wonderful flowers right? Unfortunately, such a garden would just be a solid mass of Dicentra spectabilis, since those are all names by which it is known.
When we make plant tags at the nursery we always try and put both the Latin and the common name on the tags, but the large number of common names can sometimes make that a little complicated. Salvia splendens ‘Bonfire’ could be commonly called Bonfire Scarlet Sage. Or it could be Bonfire Splendid Sage. Or even Bonfire Tropical Sage. With a common name all three words are capitalized and the name starts with the cultivar (without the single quotes used to indicate it’s a cultivar in the Latin name) and is followed by the most common, common name, each word of which is capitalized, i.e. Scarlet Sage.
So who determines which common name to use? Well at most nurseries, it’s the person making the tags, so when I was entering the information, I would use the word Hosta for both the common and the Latin name of that plant, but technically I’d be wrong. The correct common name is Plantain Lily, although Funkier is used to be the more common, common name. But in common usage hosta is the word all our gardeners use. Should we use Coral Bells or Alumroot when referring to plants in the heuchera family? I never call artemesia Wormwood, I just call it Artemesia, the same way I refer to forsythia, magnolia, hydrangeas, and clematis by their Latin names only. I’d never call a gingko a Maidenhair Tree but I’ve do call aruncus Goatsbeard. So it’s a dilemma.
Not that figuring out the Latin names is any easier. You would think the professionals growing these plants would use a consistent source of information to be the reference guides but in the world of perennials, annuals and herbs, but there doesn’t seem to be one. Allan Armitage, a god in horticultural circles, tends to be the most up to date on the perennials and annuals, but even he has said it is impossible to keep up in a printed form as names and cultivars keep changing, growing and expanding.
He has written the textbook on perennials, and another on annuals, biennials and half-hardy perennials and we treat both as bibles in the Marders reference library, but there are too many plants that are not classified within them. The Royal Horticultural A-Z Encyclopedia of garden plants is also a good source, but it too is not that up to date. And online listings don’t really help either – much to my distress the Brooklyn Botanic Garden uses the Andersen Horticultural Library's Plant Information Online, which only uses the first part of the Latin binomial.
“Wait, wait, wait Paige, what the heck is a binomial?” I hear you ask. I’m so glad you asked.
A plant’s botanical name consists of two words, and is therefore referred to as a "binomial." The first word represents the larger group the plant belongs to, the genus, and its first letter is always capitalized. The second word is the species and it is always lowercase. A plant’s binomial name should be written in full but lots of nurseries and growers and plant breeders don’t bother.
Most growers actually sell the above-mentioned salvia as Salvia Bonfire, without bothering with the single quotes or the second half of the binomial. Which makes me crazy. Not because I’m a control freak (although I am a tad) but because when you see a list of plants to buy from and only the first part of the name is used, you really have no idea what you’re getting. I happen to love Salvia nemorosas and loathe Salvia verticillatas, so luckily, because I am a plant junkie, I know that ‘Hypnotic Purple’ and ‘Salute Pink’ are salvias I want to try but that I can skip ‘Endless Love’ – but does a regular, non-plantaholic know the difference? I think nemorosas are significantly better plants, but if a first time gardener buys a plant named Salvia ‘Endless Love’ and is disappointed it’s the way verticillatas look and perform, they’re going to think all salvias are sort of blah and are going to miss out of some excellent plants.
Other then the basic binomial a Latin name can include subspecies, varieties and cultivars. A subspecies (preceded by the abbreviation "subsp.") is a geographically separate population within a species that is almost, but not quite, a separate species. A botanical variety (preceded by "var.") is a distinct variant occurring in the same populations as ordinary examples of a species. Both of these additions are really not necessary for the home gardener to know, so it’s up for debate as to whether they should go onto our tags. If you know plants, you know that sometime they’re helpful but very few people in the business of retailing plants use them, including most of the vendors we work with in the perennial and annual world. I know, I know, I hear you yawning but hear me out.
A cultivar (CULTIvated VARiety), or selection, is a type that is not naturally occurring. These have been bred or crossed or chosen for some special characteristic. Cultivar names are a word or words in a modern language (NOT Latin) set off in single quotes and capitalized, but not italicized, such as Salvia splendens ‘Bonfire’.
Hybrids, or crosses between different species, are given unique names that are preceded with an x, indicating that this plant is a hybrid between two species — for example, Salvia x superba is a hybrid of S. sylvestris and S. villicaulis. Sometimes that "x" inadvertently gets dropped along the way; this plant is often listed as Salvia superba. And I’m not positive that many of the people who sell us these plants even know for sure when something is a cross or not, and even less know what that cross is. At the nursery we can decide on having the x or taking it out. I tend to leave it in but I am a maniac.
Another problem we have is that when botanists make taxonomic name changes as a result of advances in botanical knowledge (e.g. the Chrysanthemum genus was recently split into eight different genera, including Dendranthema, Tanacetum, and Leucanthemum) it may take years for the horticultural industry to adopt them, but should we be up to date with the changes? Should our tags have the new names? And will this help or confuse our customers? We could add the new name to the old name with a slash i.e. Chrysanthemum/Dendranthema but some growers will use the old name and some the new – this is the case with Actea/Cimicifuga for example. Cimicifuga has had this new name for years, but very few people, including some awfully good gardeners, use it or know it.
Do you know Solenostemon scutellarioides? That’s the new name for some of our good friends Coleus blumei. I’m not going to be able to remember that; to be honest, I didn’t even know the second name of Coleus was blumei, and when they shelved the name coleus not all of the plants became scutellarioides. Instead a number of them were moved into the plectranthus category. And of course, to bring us full circle, my adored Dicentra spectabilis has now got a new Latin name as well. Its Lamprocapnos spectabilis – I mean come on, are they kidding me? There’s no way I’m not going to mangle that. But I’m going to still beg you to try and use the Latin name, if only to prevent you from picking up the annual Chinese Forget-Me-Nots (Cynoglossum amiable) and planting them all in your shade garden expecting them to self seed into a big carpet of blue Forget-Me-Nots which is actually an entirely different species of plant. What you want is the Myosotis sylvatica – the word Myosotis coming from the Greek word for mouse’s ear, and although the flowers look remarkably similar they’re very little else that about them that is.
Paige Patterson says there’s no such thing as too many hydrangeas – thus the ‘After Midnight’ in her car.