Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thoughts on Botanical Names

Periodically on the garden blogs, questions will arise about whether common names or scientific names are "better" for some purpose or another. (The biggest recent such post I've seen was at Garden Rant.) I've seen people at Garden Web asking about whether or not they "need to know" the botanical names for everything, and I've been snapped at for using the botanical names at GW and at work both. And I thought maybe a post about all this might be in order. So.

Pericallis x hybrida 'Pure Blue Jester.' The pictures for this post are unrelated but decorative. They'll also blow up huge if opened in a new window, if you're into that sort of thing.

I use the botanical names pretty much exclusively here at PATSP, because I think they're more useful, and also, as the sidebar says, because those are the plants' names. I don't ordinarily focus on the common names unless one is particularly stupid (as with "Timbuktu tree") or well-known (African violet), or unless I find myself saying the plant's name over and over and I need a synonym. (Food plants are exceptions.1) I also generally think in terms of the botanical names, to the point where I've had customers ask me for a common name for something and I've been unable to come up with one.2

This is not out of pretentiousness, or at least I don't think it's about pretentiousness. You have to understand, if I want to look up a plant on-line, or in a book, or order plants wholesale, the botanical names are what I have to know: common names are too localized and nonspecific, and I need to make sure we're talking about the same plant, you know? This may or may not be the case for you, but for me it's only natural to use the scientific name, and I don't consider it difficult or impressive. This is a chair, that is a table, over there is an Aglaonema.

I do appreciate that for a lot of people, the vernacular is a lot easier to pick up. Some people just don't acquire new words well, especially not new words that are weird. Still, you probably know fahrvergnügen, or sudoku, or et cetera, right?3 Dieffenbachia is not any worse than Haagen-Dazs or schadenfreude.

Plus you probably already know a lot of botanical names, even if you've never tried to learn them. Gardenia, Petunia, Aloe, Begonia, Ginkgo, Hibiscus, Philodendron, Hosta, Ficus, etc., are all official names, just off the top of my head.

Pericallis x hybrida 'Carmine Bicolor Jester.'

Common names also tend to cause confusion. I've heard Dieffenbachia spp. and Kalanchoe pinnata called "mother-in-law plant," and Sansevieria trifasciata called "mother-in-law tongue." This might lead you to think that they're similar, but the three are not really alike at all. African violets (Saintpaulia) are not much like regular violets (Viola), either. Zebra plant (Aphelandra squarrosa) is not like zebra plant (Haworthia fasciata), zebra plant (Calathea bella), zebra plant (Calathea zebrina), zebra plant (Sanchezia nobilis var. glaucaphylla), zebra plant (Aechmea chantinii), zebra plant (Cryptanthus zonatus), zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis), or the zebra orchid (Caladenia cairnsiana). You get my point.

This is not to say that there aren't issues with the botanical names being similar or confusing (it was a proud day for me when I realized that I finally knew the difference between Verbena, Viburnum, and Verbascum, for example), but at least the botanical names are actually all distinct, similar though they may be. You won't run into a situation like with the "zebras" above, where you have seven completely different plants with the exact same name. You also won't have the problem of the same plant going by totally different names depending on who you're talking to. As I mentioned in the Chlorophytum comosum profile, what in English is "airplane plant" or "spider plant" becomes "mala madre" in Spanish.

There is one pro-common-name argument that I'm sympathetic to, that some of the common names are pretty, or poetic-sounding, or have some kind of interesting historical background to them. I enjoy learning about that kind of stuff myself, and agree that it would be a shame to lose those names entirely. At the same time, though, the people who subscribe to this idea rarely stop to acknowledge that the same is frequently true of the botanical names as well. Dizygotheca elegantissima is just about the most perfectly appropriate name for any plant in any language: the name just sounds like the plant looks (to me, anyway).4 Soleirolia soleirolii (so-lay-ROW-lee-uh so-lay-ROW-lee-eye) is as musical as any English name you want to put it up against,5 and is vastly superior to "baby's tears"6 or "mind-your-own-business." Admittedly, history and stirring human trivia is not the strong point of a lot of botanical names, but there's certainly got to be some kind of story behind names like Chamaedorea elegans ("small, elegant gift"), Caryota mitis ("unarmed nut"), or Rhapis excelsa ("exalted needle").

Pericallis x hybrida 'Blue Bicolor Jester.'

Botanical names don't come without some special dangers of their own, of course. They can, for example, make possible a very special brand of douchebaggery, wherein a jerk will correct your pronunciation or ID or whatever just because s/he7 wants to look smart. Correcting pronunciation is particularly choady behavior, because it's unfair: not only do most of us see these names written out before we hear them spoken, so our first stab at a pronunciation is just a guess, but there's not exactly a "correct" pronunciation for most of these anyway. From L. H. Bailey:
There is no standard agreement on rules for the pronounciation of botanical binomials. Even in the best practice, there may be variations in pronunciation of a given word; this is unavoidable, and no more to be regretted than similar variations in pronouncing many English words. The particular sound to be given the vowels (within the categories "long" and "short") rests with the individual. Many persons pronounce generic and specific names simply as if the words were English, but for the most part the accent, at least, follows usage in Latin.8
Things have probably changed somewhat since 1933: I'm sure if nothing else, someone somewhere has probably written up official pronunciation standards, but I think Bailey really has the saner approach for the low-stakes garden center / hobbyist area. What's important is that everybody knows what plant is being discussed, and whether it's HOOK-er-uh / HYEW-ker-uh / HOY-ker-uh or whatever is really awfully beside the point. Pronounce it the way you think it should be pronounced; if other people say it differently, adopt their pronunciation if it makes more sense, and don't if it doesn't. Things will work out. Don't be intimidated.

Pericallis x hybrida 'Carmine Bicolor Jester.'

In any case, there's no excuse for people who work in the plant business not to know the names -- both names -- of the plants they're selling, and to include that information on the tags. Which was pretty much the consensus opinion on Garden Rant, by the end of it all. The people who are selling the plants need to know what they're selling, and what the customers are asking for. This is, or at least ought to be, pretty basic customer service: it's not that much to expect.9 As a customer, of course, you can know or not know anything you want, but if you only have time or motivation to learn one name, the botanical name is the one that's going to be worth more to you in the long run, I think. A lot depends on who you plan on discussing the plants with, and whether you anticipate becoming a collector: if you don't really care beyond having something in your yard that looks pretty and doesn't need a lot of work from you, learn either. If you're going to want to talk about them on-line with people from all over the world, or ask your local garden center for help with them, or do Google searches on them, the effort you put into the botanical names will pay off, I can just about promise. But, you know, don't feel obligated.

Your thoughts?


1 Food plants seem like an acceptable exception to me because most of the time when you encounter them, they're already separated from the plant and reduced to just the edible parts. Still technically alive, sure, but no longer the entire plant with roots and soil and leaves and the whole shebang. Somehow this makes it okay, as far as I'm concerned, to forget about the botanical name unless you really want to know it for some reason. But I only feel that way about food plants.
2 Anthurium andraeanum seems to be particularly bad that way. I've heard the names "flamingo flower" and "tail flower" used for them in books and stuff, but nobody I know uses those names for them: at work, everybody calls them Anthuriums, all the time, so when I have to use "flamingo flower" or something I always get kind of self-conscious about it. Somehow it ends up feeling like I'm making the name up on the spot, even though I'm not.
3 If you don't: fahrvergnügen is a word from a 1989 Volkswagen ad campaign, which means "driving enjoyment" in German. Sudoku is the Japanese name for the puzzles where you have to put all the digits 1-9 in a grid so that no row, column, or smaller grid within the grid contains the same digit more than once. Et cetera is a Latin phrase meaning "and the rest," which is presently in the process of being butchered into the Englishized "eksetera." At least as far as pronunciation goes. I'm usually pretty tolerant of other people changing pronunciations and spellings, but "eksetera" and "aks" and "ekspresso" all drive me up a wall. Something about the "ks" sound.
4 Which makes it all the more tragic that it's no longer correct: it's technically a Schefflera now, so the name is the much less musical Schefflera elegantissima.
5 I forget whose original point this was; someone mentioned it in the comments here a long time ago, and I agree, so it stuck with me. I just can't remember who said it originally, for which I apologize.
6 (Not that crying babies aren't lovely.)
7 (It's usually a he.)
8 How Plants Get Their Names, Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY, 1963, p. 115. This edition is an unabridged reprint of a work initially published in 1933, which is why it sounds all literate and crap.
9 Though it does get to be a lot to expect in situations like mine, where I'm expected to know not only the names for the 250-300 species of plant we have in the greenhouse, but then also another 50-100 annuals, maybe 150-250 perennials, and unknown numbers of shrubs and trees. I'm learning as fast as I can, but I still need to look at the tags, or ask people, on the more outdoorsy stuff.


Julia said...

I know the botanical names of all my plants, and all the plants on my wish-list. For me there is no doubt which fern I am referring to when I say Cheilanthes lanosa. However, the Hubster can't cope. He doesn't know any of the botanical names, and can just about tell the difference between a fern and a cycad.

He'd be equally as crap if I referred to the sago palms rather than Cycas revoluta. Common names mean nothing to him either. However, one side-effect of my slightly childish tendency to give proper names to my bigger specimen plants is that he remembers all of them.

He can tell the difference between Bastard and Bastard II, can point out Sideshow Bob, Karma, Matildus, Jesus, Jose Cuervo and all the rest. Between the two of us, when I'm going away for the weekend in the height of summer, I can happily tell him to "Water everything but Matildus, Jose and the Bastards" and he knows exactly what to do.

Professionally, though, I think anyone who works in horticulture or gardening should know the Latin names. It avoids any confusion. I don't understand why you are told off for using binomials at work. In my palaeontology work I HAVE to use the binomials. I am certainly not going to refer to "longnecks" rather than Apatosaurus ajax. The key is still being able to communicate what they are to a lay person, whether by offering a common name, or by showing a picture or actual specimen.

Anonymous said...

I have a picture but no name of a plant. Pls tell me how do I go about googling for its name ... botanical and common name ... thanks

Linas Alsenas said...

I just read something in a botany book, though, that one drawback to only following the Latin scientific names is that they are sometimes subject to change. If a plant is renamed because of a new species discovery, for example, there is no particularly good way to promulgate its new name, so you end up with high confusion until enough people actually look it up on that international list over time. But I totally agree, better to go with the latin name than with any other existing system.

Helen/patientgardener said...

This was a very interesting post. I agree that those in the plant world should know the latin names. Like you I find that if I want reliable information I need the latin name to find it. I do get fustrated though when plants are reclassified and have new names. I have recently received some seeds from garden societies which do not appear in the most recent edition of the RHS plant guide and I can only assume this is because the latin name as changed and the person donated the seed didnt know.

mr_subjunctive said...

Linas / patientgardener:

Usually, though, even if a name gets changed, the old name persists for a long enough time that it's possible to find out what you want to find out without having to know the new one. I mean, Setcreasea purpurea hasn't been the correct name for Tradescantia pallida for a long time, but you can still find references to it. It's not like discarded names just disappear when the taxonomists decide that a name needs to be changed.

Which is fine with me. I can see why the taxonomists care -- their whole purpose is in uncovering the relationships between plants and making sure that the right people get credit for discovering plants and all that, and for those kinds of things, it's absolutely critical that names be switched immediately when new information comes in. For the rest of us, I think the gradual, sloppy shift from one name to another as people hear about and accept the new name is probably better. It's certainly still better, in most cases, than trying to do the same thing with common names. Marketers change common names all the time.


Your best bet is probably to go somewhere like the Garden Web Name That Plant forum, post your picture (or a link to your picture), and see what suggestions get thrown at you. The other option, I suppose, would be to google descriptive words ("green leaves thick leaves yellow flowers four petals houseplant," or whatever) and see if you get lucky, but usually Googling only works if you have a guess to begin with.


Well, you're still using common names, they're just common names that only you and your husband know. Which obviously works well enough for your purposes.

My husband has asked a time or two if I could label all the plants here, so he has some chance of learning the names for them all (not that he doesn't already know a lot of them, one way or another). It's a nice idea, but it would take soooooooo many labels that it would get expensive and/or time-consuming: it's like $2 for 24 labels, so the whole collection would need $40 worth. And for that kind of money, I'd rather just get a new plant.

I don't know if it was unclear: the customers (very occasionally) are the ones who get snotty about me using binomials. The co-workers don't mind, though one of the front counter people has been known to claim that common names should be the only one you need, and he'll apparently defend this position vigorously if you get him started on it. I think he's the only one who prefers the common names to the botanical ones, though.

Benjamin Vogt said...

MY wife has asked for plant labels too! I have like what, 300 plants at this point? So when we go around adn she tries to learn plant names, I give her th elatin ones just to piss her off. I DO have the labels--weatherproof ones they say--and a list all ready for my laser printer, stakes too.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with your comments. I had a discussion recently with my mom (who only uses common names and thinks botanical ones are silly and useless). When I mentioned that I had a new plant, Ctenanthe lubbersiana (which incidentally doesn't have a common name that I am aware of), I told her it was in the same family as Calathea. She looked at me with a blank face. But I knew she had seen my Calathea, so I said, "You know, the Zebra plant!" She was like "Oh yes, I had a Zebra plant many years ago and once it grew this huge yellow flower." I was like, "No, wrong zebra plant."

Anyway, you should check out the book Gardener's Latin by Bill Neal. It has lots of good information on botanical names and short stories about where some of them came from. I enjoy perusing it.

Lance said...

How many people outside a few who follow Broadway musicals know schadenfreude. I love the word however.

My sister always called Anthuriums - Peter on a Platter. One of the few times I like the common name. My main issue with botanical names is - I can't spell worth crap. But that's my issue.

Love the blues btw.

Anonymous said...

When people give me the hairy eyeball for using Latin, I try and liken it to given names and nicknames. You may know three Barbs, but I'll bet you only know one Barbara Jean Whaite.

I generally get the glazed eyes and the polite smile, but y'know, it's their problem.


Unknown said...

I flove this post! (and yes, the f is meant to be there...) It oughta be required reading for gardeners as a way to encourage them not to fear the botanical names. I hear all kinds of pronunciations and make a few odd ones myself because as you say, we normally read botanical names long before we hear them. Even some of my professors way back in the day had some curious pronunciations of botanical names, and they more likely took Latin or Greek, whereas we never did.

I would never intimidate or belittle someone who said CAMP an nu la in stead of cam PAN u la.

And you're right about the douchebags, too. The best/worst one I've dealt with was a taxonomist who took me to task over Labrador tea (which I had learned as Ledum groenlandicum) and which now, apparently has been changed to Rhododendron groenlandicum by--you probably guessed it--this particular taxonomist. Well, hecky darn. I hadn't gotten the memo.

I know that DNA mapping makes clarifying families and genera etc more precise, but there's no note goes out to everyone to say, "hey, guess what, we've decided that Cimicifuga oughta be called Actaea!" We end up learning these things by osmosis, and there's still debate over some names, and you'll STILL find Labrador tea called L.g. in a lot of reputable books and websites.

It's a fascinating subject, for sure, and I oughta write something and link back to you because this post totally rules.

Aiyana said...

I too agree with your comments. Common names are sometimes confusing, and in the world of cacti, there may be numerous common names depending on the region, subspecies, etc. Many folks who collect specimen plants really want and need to know. What really bothers me is to buy a plant that is mislabeled, and you won't know it for years, or else you've called out the botanical name and someone who is a specialist comes along and points out why the plant couldn't possibly be the species called out on the label. I've found that sometimes mislabeling is deliberate in young plants, because certain species and subspecies command more money. One won't know for years with cacti!

Ann, Chen Jie Xue 陈洁雪 said...

I find your post very interesting, but I find it hard even to remember the lay man's names, needless to say, the botanical names.

Like you say, the Mother-in-law's tongue, and the Mind your own business plant, I had great fun discussing these names with my friends. We get a chuckle out of them.

My posts are mainly lay man's names, sorry.

I like your photos.

Anonymous said...

For shame, Benjamin! If you wife actually wants to try to learn the names, why put her off or overwhlem her? I think it's pretty cool that she wants to learn them. Why not label a few of the plants (perhaps ones she seems to really like) and help her master those names. Once that happens label a few more plants for her to learn?

Mr S -- every consider doing some recycling? Next time you wind up with an empty plastic container --from milk, butter, or whatever -- rinse out the container well or clean it if it's had something opily in it, grab a pair of heavy shears/scissors and cut the container up into strips for tags. Something that can even be done while watching tv.

Don said...

mr_subjunctive, thanks for this, and I agree with what you say wholeheartedly.

Let me add one further twist.

Jodi, if you're ever again in a confrontation with a douchebag botanist, you can keep in mind the distinction between a botanical name and a horticultural name.

The purpose of a name is communication. When I order a plant from a grower, I want to use the word the grower uses. Often enough, that's a term a botanist would consider obsolete. But in the horticultural world, stability in naming is an important virtue. If you want to engage in one-uppersonship with a botanist, at least in writing, you can refer to Ledum groenlandicum (hort.), and rest on your laurels.

(hort.) is short for "hortensis", and when read aloud is pronounced "of gardens". It means, "Whatever a botanist might call it, this is how it's most widely known among those who grow the thing commercially." It's sometimes especially necessary when, as sometimes happens, the correct classification of a particular gardening taxon is unknown even by the botanists.

Lance said...

I thought of this post the minute I saw this:

Garden Beet said...

great - will link to this post when I need an explanation - thanks for writing it

Pat said...

Or Solanum esculentum as some botanist has renamed the tomato.

I just use a fake Italian accent the first time I run through the name to get something that works.

Keith said...

I too tend to use the botanical names, as like most others, it avoids confusion. However, I do make exceptions without thinking about it. For example, my Sollya heterophylla when spoken becomes my Bluebell Creeper.
My favourite name though has to be Johannesteijsmanmia Magnifica

Cristie said...

Mr_Subjunctive - I absolutely love your blog. I love your wit. I love your no BS approach. And I love your straightforwardness. You have so much useful information on your blog, and I really appreciate you taking all the time to share it with us.

I recently wrote a similar post, "Common Name Confusion". Eat your plant nerd heart out!

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