In the south we revere names. We are named after family, events and names that describe or just suit us.
Plants are like this.
Plants have at least two general types of names: common and botanical. The common names often are describing a feature of the plant or flower: sunflower, blue bell, bell flower, thorn apple, angel’s trumpet, blue star and black-eyed susan. A single plant can have several common names that can vary by person, region and country.
Common names serve us well…except when you realize there are several that apply to multiple plants. If you approach a nurseryman and request a sunflower or blue bell, you may find there are numerous varieties and plants that share those names.
Plants need to be named in a fashion to be universally understood and accepted. Scientific names are an attempt to clarify this jumble of information and to facilitate communication.
Written plant names began with the Greeks in the 1600s to 1700s. Plants were grouped by one major characteristic: color, flower structure or medicinal use.
Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778, developed the Binomial System for Taxonomy (the scientific study of the proper classification of organisms.) This helped form the use of scientific names for plants by classifying them by their floral parts. Plants were placed in a division of life form by family, genus and species. The family is the general grouping of plants while the genus is the name given to a group of organisms whose characteristics are permanent and similar.
Species further describe characteristics of that particular plant. Remembering that these names and divisions are not meant to confuse but to clarify, you need to look for clues in the names.
In the history of plants, as each specimen was found, it needed to be organized into a database for reference. The scientific or Latin name of a plant is properly called the botanical name. Botany is the study of plants.
All plants that are found and identified are named and a sample stored for reference. To be universally accepted, scientific/botanical names must be published in a book, botanical journal, magazine or newspaper with a description. This was used as a reference as new plants were discovered or the same ones of different varieties. The plants that were identified by a botanist were preserved in a herbarium.
Some plants need to be regrouped or renamed when new evidence evolves as in improved DNA data. Biological or scientific classification is how biologists group organisms. This answers the questions when a particular plant is suddenly renamed. These changes will continue as science is ever changing. Recent revisions are used to improve consistency.
The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature came into existence in 1992. Seventy percent of plants are named for some characteristic or the place collected.
The most widely accepted sources for names of plants are the “Synthesis of Northern American Flora USDA Plant Data Base,” “The Flora of North America Project” and the about to be completed “Flora of Virginia.”
If this seems a bit confusing add to it that similar plants in different environments can possess dissimilar characteristics.
So now how do we bring all this information down to human scale? Straight memorization helps. Winter nights by a fireplace with a botanical listing to review is not everyone’s idea of entertainment, but believe me, it helps. Tackle a few at a time. The names tell a story.
Acer, maple; Querqus, oak; Cercus, redbud; Pinus, pine; Festuca, fescue; Baptisia, wild indigo; Oenothera, evening primrose; Oxalis, wood sorrel or clover; Calicarpa, beautyberry; Clethra, pepperbush; Cornus, dogwood; Hamanelis, witch hazel; Rhodendron, azalea and other like plants.
Some names are obvious as in Phlox, Spirea, Viburnum and Rosa.
You will find clues. Anything ending in aceae indicates it is of the family of the prefix as in Berberidaceae (epimedium or barrenwort) being in the family of Berberid and Asteraceae (eupatorium or boneset)…in the aster family. Then occasionally there is no clue at all as in Bromeilad. What in the heck is that??
You will learn that all Cornus are dogwoods and not necessarily alike. All Betula are birches with many varieties. Think of all the maples and oaks and how they differ. Daffodils are not just daffodils but Narcissus with many different features. All azaleas are actually Rhododendrons…and so are the rhododendrons.
As you progress you will find you are more and more comfortable with the botanical names and begin to speak of them in that sense. Ilex is more often used in your speech than holly and Fagus is how you refer to beech.
You have begun to scratch the surface. As you become more comfortable with the botanical names you can begin to branch out and look at the differentiation between the species and varieties.
You learn that Myrica (bayberry) has a southern variety and a northern one. The northern (Myrica pennsylvanica) is noted for its ability to scent candles and the southern one (Myrica cerifera) is our native and specially adapted to our environment.
Liriope spicatta is the spreading type while Liriope muscari is even and clumping.
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), as the name indicates, is a Symplocarpus with an odor. Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), a native of Virginia, is a Hyacinoides as are grape hyacinths, hyacinths, and other like plants.
There are several helpful sources. Timber Press has a Dictionary of Plant Names. Many plant catalogs contain botanical names and some even list the botanical names first with the common names included next or in the description.
Good nurseries deal well with gardeners who are learning botanical names. They can assist you in purchasing the plant you are describing and give you the varieties that are most appropriate for your needs. If you find resistance, you are in the wrong place!
The Reverend John Clayton 1693-1773 an Englishman of Soles, Gloucester County, Virginia, was an excellent plantsman and spent much of his 80 years in botanical research. Claytonia is the generic name given to many plants that he helped identify. The genus claytonia is in the Portulacaceae family. There are two native species, Claytonia virginica and Claytonia caroliana. John supplied masses of specimens and information for “Flora Virginica” published in 1739 by the Department of Botany at the National History Museum in London, England. The museum maintains a herbarium named in his honor.
Now with all this naming, how do we begin to pronounce them?
Pronunciation can be confusing with often more than one proper version. William Stearn, the authority on botanical Latin stated that “How (scientific names) are pronounced really matters little provided they sound pleasant and are understood by all concerned.” What a relief!!!
The general guide is to pronounce all the vowels.
Problem pronunciations can be some of the following:
- Peony (PE-un-ne or pe-O-ne)
- Cotoneaster (cuh-TAN-ne-AS-thur or cawt-tunn-ES-tuhr)
- Chamomile (KAM-uh-mil or KAM-uh-mel)
- Poinsettia (poyn-SHE-tuh- or poyn-SHE-te-us)
- Peony (PE-uh-ne or pe-O-ne)
- Forsythia (Fohr-SIH-the-a or fohr-SIGHT-the-a)
Generally the emPHAsis is on the next to the last sylLAble.
So get on out there and give it a try. You will find information on each plant that you did not know to look for before. You will begin to recognize the plant characteristics, origin and special traits and begin to speak the language. You may even impress a few of your friends.
You know full well that just when you begin to learn, somewhere, sometime it will change.
By Judy Ripley