Botanical Names– Say What?

Botan­i­cal names are both a boon and a bane to gar­den­ers.  I have a dif­fi­cult time pro­nounc­ing them ‘cor­rectly’ and man, say it wrong to a hard-core gar­dener and they’ll cer­tainly cor­rect you! I’ve had my latin handed to me on more than one occasion!

For­tu­nately, the folks who bring us Fine Gar­den­ing mag­a­zine have cre­ated an audio pro­nun­ci­a­tion guide on their web­site to help even the most dyslexic of gar­den­ers (like me) say the names cor­rectly– or at least using the most com­mon pro­nun­ci­a­tion. I’m still not going to call Peonies (in Utah­nics Pee-o-knees) the back-East way of Pea-a-knees, you know? There IS an ‘O’ in there people!

Botan­i­cal names are sort of a nec­es­sary evil.  A plant can have mul­ti­ple ‘Com­mon Names’ but some com­mon names may be used in one region but not another.  Each plant has only one Botan­i­cal Name– if you want to get the right plant, you really need to know it’s botan­i­cal name (or be good at Googling if you don’t want to expend the brain space needed to hold all those jum­bled up names in there!) Com­pli­cat­ing the process even more are the ‘cul­ti­var’ names.  What does all of it mean?

While the FULL botan­i­cal name, as deter­mined by the Sys­tem for Botan­i­cal Nomen­cla­ture, for a plant can include a LONG list of names, the gen­eral prac­tice is to use a bino­mial sys­tem (two name sys­tem) with addi­tional clar­i­fiers as needed. The first name you’ll gen­er­ally see on a plant tag is the Genus name, such as Salvia. The sec­ond name iden­ti­fies the species, thus the same Salvia could read: Salvia nemorosa.

The first name describes com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics shared by a group of plants.  The sec­ond name often has roots in the dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic it is describ­ing– such as Picea (spruce) pun­gens (Col­orado Spruce) glauca (mean­ing hav­ing bluish foliage) ‘fasti­giata’ (mean­ing colum­nar form).  Other sec­ondary names which are often used and describe char­ac­ter­is­tics are “aurea” (mean­ing yel­low­ish foliage), “den­sata” (mean­ing dense foliage), “gran­di­fo­lia” (mean­ing large flow­ers) etc.  It can also give an indi­ca­tion of the loca­tion where the plant is endemic.  “japon­ica” means of Japan­ese ori­gin so it’s pretty obvi­ous that “chi­nen­sis” would denote China.  But all of that is mak­ing this post FAR more com­plex than intended!

If a spe­cial strain has been selected or a spe­cific indi­vid­ual plant proved to be supe­rior to oth­ers from the same genus and species, that plant can become a ‘cul­ti­var’ which is then iso­lated and prop­a­gated for it’s supe­rior char­ac­ter­is­tics.  Thus a Salvia nemorosa ‘Blue Hill’ would be a spe­cial­ized ver­sion of the par­ent plant that was selected out for char­ac­ter­is­tics that are dif­fer­ent from the rest of the seed-grown batch.

In a sim­i­lar vein are hybrids. Some­times, you’ll see an “x” in between the genus and species name, such as Salvia x sylvestris.  The “x” indi­cates that the plant in ques­tion is a cross between two species. Salvia x sylvestris is a cross between Salvia nemorosa and Salvia praten­sis– it’s the off­spring of the two sim­i­lar species. Multi-plant-racial if you will. Plant breed­ers will often cross sim­i­lar species in hopes of pro­duc­ing a batch of off­spring that has the best qual­i­ties of both parents.

Rarely, you’ll see a BIG X with two genus names– this means the cross has occurred at the genus level rather than the species level (which would have a small x).  It’s rare enough that I can’t even think of an exam­ple off the top of my head but if you know of one, feel free to add it in the comments.

Obvi­ously deter­min­ing and assign­ing botan­i­cal names is a com­plex oper­a­tion beyond the needed knowl­edge of non-botanists.  How­ever, under­stand­ing the basic names will help you gar­den with more con­fi­dence and give you some­thing to lord over oth­ers at cock­tail par­ties! Okay, I sorta made up that last part as a joke but we ALL know Botan­i­cal name snobs– don’t be that per­son.  It’s won­der­ful to mem­o­rize and share the names of plants but unless you know the per­son REALLY well, don’t preach it and don’t cor­rect their pro­nun­ci­a­tion unless invited to do so. Just my unso­licited opin­ion on gar­dener etiquette!

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