Season 2 • Episode 2 - February 1, 2023

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As a gardener, have you ever wondered why we use Latin names for plants, or thought about why some plants have unique and weird common names? In this episode of Garden Time we did a little research and sat down to talk about those questions and many more about plants and how we name them.

Judy, Ryan and producer Jeff found some chairs at the Al’s Garden and Home in Sherwood, Oregon to discuss this very broad and unique topic. We started with Latin. Latin names are the most common form of scientific naming and classification. Actually the naming of plants is as old as time itself. People would make up names for the plants they were familiar with and those names were shared throughout local cultures. However, that proved to be a problem as time passed and people tried to share information on different plants. How can you share information on plants if every culture has a different name for each plant? More on those common names later.

In the 18th century scientists were looking for a system to standardize the naming of plants. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus eventually came up with the binomial (two-names) system of naming plants. He chose Latin which was considered a ‘dead’ language, meaning that there was no new words or slang created over time. Latin words were also descriptive so they could help you even if you didn’t know what a plant looked like (for example, if you see the name ‘alba’, which means ‘white’ in Latin, you know that some part of the plant is probably white). Linnaeus used the binomial system to classify plants with the first name, Genus (always capitalized) representing the a large group of plants with a similar ancestor or similar characteristics. That is followed by the species (lowercase letter), an even smaller grouping of the Genus with even more shared characteristics. So when you have a ‘Rosa alba’ you can figure out that you are looking at a ‘white rose’. Even the current human race uses a Latin name, Homo sapiens (meaning ‘wise man’) to classify our species. The naming of plants can go even further if you refer to specific cultivars. Cultivars are the new, and significantly different, plants in this family that are produced through cross breeding and hybridization.

This helps growers, retailers and customers to determine the specific plant they are talking about. If you go to a local garden center and ask for a maple you could be referring to a large variety of trees. If you want a red maple, then asking for an Acer rubrum, is the way to go. Then by selecting a specific cultivar like a ‘Frank Jr’ (common name ‘Redpointe’ Red Maple), you are assured of getting the right tree you want. These cultivar names are not always Latin and are sometimes a common name to assist in marketing.

Latin may seem like a difficult way of tracking plants, but it does help people and scientists across different cultures and languages to categorize old and new plants. Sometimes you can even determine the area of origin by looking at the name. Chinensis means ‘from China’, Japonicus means ‘from Japan’, Canadensis means ‘of Canada’ and Orientalis means ‘from the Orient’. You’ll find many other names like these.

The Latin names can change though. In the past, plants gained their Latin names through the description of plant characteristics or observation of their structures. That means sometimes plants were grouped together because of looks and not ancestry. Now, in the age of DNA and genetic sequencing, we can find out if plants are genetically linked. That means that some plants are moved to different ‘families’ and that can be confusing and frustrating for growers, retailers and customers. An example that Judy used is that a Hebe is now classified as a Veronica as announced by NATAG (RHS Nomenclature and Taxonomy Advisory Group) in 2020. Even though the scientific name has changed, many retailers are still listing the plant as a Hebe to make it easier for the consumer, though the change will probably become permanent over time.

That brings us to the use of common names which we tackled after a quick break.

As mentioned before, the use of common names probably started when people first recognized plants and wanted to describe them to others. Common names could refer to medicinal properties (lungwort), being edible (blueberry), or sometimes just a visual observation of the plant itself (cigar flower). That led us down a long list of names that are just strange. Here are a few names that we found on a quick search of the internet and through Ryan and Judy’s experience in garden centers. Sneezeweed (Helenium sp.), Pussytoes (Antennaria sp.), Cheeseweed (Malva neglecta), Butter-and-Eggs, Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris), Fried Egg Flower (Romnea coulteri), Burning Bush, Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica), Sticky Willy (Galium aparine), Mother-in-Law's Tongue or Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), Kangaroo Paws (Anigozanthos flavidus), Corpse Flower (Titan arum), American Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), Sausage Tree (Kigelia Africana), Mouse Tail (Arisarum proboscideum), Zebra Plant, Monkey Monstera, Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia), Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Mad Dog Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), Cuckoo Flower (Cardmine pratensis), Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare), Shaggy Soldier (Galinsoga quadriradiata), Common Nipplewort (Lapsana communis), Brazen Hussy, Spotted Toad Lily, Peanut Butter Tree (Clerodendrum trichotomum), Cobra Lily and Busy Lizzies (impatiens). This was just a short list of names from about a half dozen sites on the internet. There are many, many more out on the market.
Of course sometimes common names becomes a liability to the plant when society advances and some names are a little too nasty to mention on our show. A name that is changing is the houseplant, Wandering Jew. This plant has been on the market for decades under that common name. Some growers are changing the name or using the Latin name. Judy has changed it at Al’s to Wandering Dude. A more appropriate name for this beautiful plant.

Growers are also trying to come up with unique names each year when they hybridize new varieties. These common names could be tributes to friends or family, could reflect items that they resemble (like the Red Sunset Maple) or some cute name to help with marketing and selling the plant. Garden Time has been honored to have a few flower varieties named for our show. There is a rose from Heirloom Roses, an iris from Schreiner’s Iris, a dahlia from Swan Island Dahlias and a tulip (no longer grown) from Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm. The three flowers can be found for purchase on the www.GardenTime.tv website.

So when you go shopping for plants take a long look at the plant tags. Not only will you find great information on the plant and planting conditions, but you may learn a bit more about the heritage of that plant.

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