What’s in a name? If you’ve ever won­dered how plants get their botan­i­cal names or why they keep chang­ing, let Ken Thomp­son help you cut through the con­fu­sion 16

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS KEN THOMP­SON

Botan­i­cal plant names can be con­fus­ing, es­pe­cially as they al­ways seem to be chang­ing, but learn­ing the rules be­hind plant-nam­ing con­ven­tions can be key to un­der­stand­ing more about plants’ ori­gins and their pre­ferred grow­ing con­di­tions. If Botan­i­cal Latin is all Greek to you (and to be hon­est quite a lot of it is) then let us help you sort your syl­vat­ica from your for­restii

For­mal plant clas­si­fi­ca­tion is a hi­er­ar­chi­cal sys­tem with many lev­els, but the most im­por­tant of those lev­els for gar­den­ers, the one we use ev­ery day, is the genus (plu­ral gen­era). Gen­era are ba­si­cally dis­tinct, recog­nis­able kinds of plant, and in many cases the genus name is also the com­mon name. When­ever you talk about rhodo­den­dron, iris, cro­cus, wis­te­ria, camel­lia and pen­ste­mon, for ex­am­ple, you’re us­ing Botan­i­cal Latin names of gen­era. All they need to be­come Botan­i­cal Latin, which by the way also in­cludes a fair bit of Greek, is ital­i­cis­ing and a cap­i­tal let­ter, for ex­am­ple Rhodo­den­dron.

The only other two lev­els of the botan­i­cal hi­er­ar­chy that gar­den­ers nor­mally need are the next one up (fam­ily), and the next one down (species). The rule is that fam­ily names are al­ways made up by ad­ding ‘-aceae’ to the genus name on which the fam­ily name is based; for ex­am­ple Iris + aceae = Iri­daceae (with an ex­tra ‘d’ to make it pro­nounce­able). Species fit in­side gen­era, just as gen­era fit within fam­i­lies. Within the genus Vibur­num, for ex­am­ple, are sev­eral species well-known to gar­den­ers, in­clud­ing Vibur­num da­vidii. In a list like this, or any­where the genus is un­der­stood, it is usu­ally short­ened to its ini­tial, for ex­am­ple, V. da­vidii. Gar­den plants may also be hy­brids of two species, in which case the name may be the two spe­cific names sep­a­rated by ‘x’. More of­ten hy­brids are given a new spe­cific name, pre­fixed by ‘x’ to show it is a hy­brid. So the hy­brid of V. far­reri and V. gran­di­flo­rum is called V. x bod­nan­tense.

Gar­den plants are of­ten cul­ti­vated va­ri­eties (‘cul­ti­vars’) se­lected for a par­tic­u­lar fea­ture, such as vigour, har­di­ness or flower shade, for ex­am­ple V. ti­nus ‘Eve Price’, and hy­brids may also have cul­ti­vars, such as V. x bod­nan­tense ‘Dawn’. Some­times, es­pe­cially in gen­era that gar­den­ers and breed­ers have been mess­ing about with for a long time, a cul­ti­var’s his­tory is so com­plex that it can no longer be re­ferred to a species, or even a hy­brid, so there’s just a genus and cul­ti­var name, as in Rosa ‘Fra­grant De­light’.

What, if any­thing, do all these names ac­tu­ally mean? Many genus names are just, well, names, they don’t re­ally mean any­thing – they are just what the plant has al­ways been called, of­ten since Ro­man times. Salvia, Malus and Rosa, for ex­am­ple, are what the Ro­mans called sage, ap­ple and var­i­ous roses. Other gen­era may com­mem­o­rate botanists or politi­cians, for ex­am­ple Fuch­sia (Leonard Fuchs, a 16th-cen­tury Ger­man botanist – re­mem­ber­ing this, by the way, will help you to spell it cor­rectly), Gre­vil­lea (Charles Fran­cis Gre­ville, an 18th-cen­tury Bri­tish politi­cian and one of the founders of the Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety of Lon­don that later be­came the RHS) and Gun­nera (Jo­hann Ernst Gun­nerus, an 18th-cen­tury Nor­we­gian bishop and am­a­teur botanist). Some generic names are de­scrip­tive, but of­ten take some de­cod­ing; Galan­thus, for ex­am­ple, is Greek for milk-flower, Aqui­le­gia is from aquila, Latin for ea­gle (the spurred pe­tals are sup­posed to re­sem­ble an ea­gle’s talons), and Gyp­sophila is from the Greek for chalk-lover, from a pref­er­ence for chalky soils.

Species names, like gen­era, some­times com­mem­o­rate famous peo­ple. For ex­am­ple, Ber­beris dar­winii, Rhodo­den­dron for­restii and Acer da­vidii are named for Charles Dar­win and the plant hun­ters Ge­orge For­rest and Jean Pierre Ar­mand David re­spec­tively.

Some use­ful in­di­ca­tors of habi­tat in­clude syl­vat­ica (of woods or forests) and palus­tris (of bogs or marshes), so plants with these names are likely to do well in shade ( Luzula syl­vat­ica, woodrush) or wet soil ( Caltha palus­tris, marsh marigold). Arme­ria mar­itima is,

of course, from the sea­side, Cym­balaria mu­ralis grows on walls and Clema­tis alpina re­ally does come from the Alps.

Some spe­cific names are sim­ply straight­for­ward de­scrip­tions of the plant it­self, as in Dryas oc­topetala (eight pe­tals), Salvia mi­cro­phylla (small leaves) and Magnolia gran­di­flora (big flow­ers). Colours may be ob­vi­ous as in Ribes ni­grum (black, in this case re­fer­ring to the fruits) or not so ob­vi­ous – caerulea is from the Latin for blue as in Pas­si­flora caerulea, lutea is yellow as in Stern­ber­gia lutea, and coc­cineum is scar­let as in Em­both­rium coc­cineum.

Two use­ful species names are es­cu­len­tum (good to eat) and sativa (planted or cul­ti­vated). So we have Ly­cop­er­si­con es­cu­len­tum (tomato) and Lac­tuca sativa (let­tuce). Many names re­fer to the coun­try or re­gion of ori­gin, ei­ther ob­vi­ously ( Cer­cidi­phyl­lum japon­icum, Wis­te­ria sinen­sis, Hy­acinthoides his­pan­ica) or less so. You need to know that Nootka Sound is in Bri­tish Columbia to in­ter­pret Xan­tho­cy­paris nootkaten­sis (al­though you may have had a bet­ter chance of guess­ing its com­mon name of Alaska cedar when it was still known as Cu­pres­sus nootkaten­sis).

The rules of plant nam­ing are set out in the In­ter­na­tional Code of Nomen­cla­ture for al­gae, fungi and plants (ICN), the pri­mary aim of which is to avoid con­fu­sion by mak­ing sure a plant has only one cor­rect name. Ac­cord­ing to the rule of pri­or­ity, that name is the first one ‘validly pub­lished’ (usu­ally these days in a sci­en­tific jour­nal, or a mag­a­zine such as this) since 1 May 1753, which is when Carl Lin­naeus started the whole sys­tem, giv­ing ev­ery plant then known a Latin bi­no­mial, that is a genus and species name. Tech­ni­cally, a name is only com­plete if ac­com­pa­nied by an au­thor­ity, that is who­ever gave the plant its name. Au­thor­ity names are usu­ally ab­bre­vi­ated, so for ex­am­ple Lin­naeus be­comes L. As long as it obeys the (com­pli­cated) rules set out in the ICN, a plant’s name is en­tirely up to the per­son do­ing the nam­ing. A whop­ping great tree found in Gabon in 2015, big­ger than any of its rel­a­tives, was named Gil­ber­tio­den­dron max­i­mum. Com­mem­o­rat­ing some­one famous is al­ways an op­tion; Ne­penthes at­ten­bor­oughii, named af­ter the cel­e­brated broad­caster, is a car­niv­o­rous pitcher plant dis­cov­ered in 2009 in the Philip­pines. A new orchid was re­cently named Den­dro­bium cyn­thiae af­ter the Cal­i­for­nian orchid grower Cyn­thia (Cyndy) Hill. The au­thor of the orchid genus Aa wanted to make quite sure it al­ways ap­peared at the top of any al­pha­bet­i­cal list. And if you need a new genus and your imag­i­na­tion fails you, well, Sar­tidia is a new grass genus, re­lated to the ex­ist­ing Aris­tida.

A sur­pris­ing num­ber of the ‘new’ plants dis­cov­ered ev­ery year come from some­one tak­ing a fresh look at old herbar­ium spec­i­mens. Or, these days, look­ing not at plants as such, but at


their DNA. Once upon a time plants were clas­si­fied on the ba­sis of their ap­pear­ance, but the sim­i­lar­ity of the DNA of two species is a per­fect guide to how closely re­lated they are. So, as se­quenc­ing DNA gets cheaper and eas­ier, we of­ten find our ear­lier ideas about clas­si­fi­ca­tion were not en­tirely cor­rect – which in turn means some names need to change. Se­dum, for ex­am­ple, has now been split into sev­eral gen­era, in­clud­ing Hy­lotele­phium and Rho­di­ola, as well as Se­dum, and the Welsh poppy has been taken out of Me­conop­sis and put into Pa­paver (which is ac­tu­ally where Lin­naeus had put it in the first place).

Can a name ever be re­jected? Yes, it can, and break­ing the rules is fine if obey­ing them would be too an­noy­ing. Thus, al­though strict ap­pli­ca­tion of the rule of pri­or­ity would re­place Freesia by the ear­lier name Ano­math­eca, the for­mer is of­fi­cially ‘con­served’ and the lat­ter re­jected.

A fi­nal word about com­mon names. If you want to be ab­so­lutely unambiguous, it al­ways pays to use the botan­i­cal name. But com­mon names have their uses; some are ex­tremely use­ful in in­di­cat­ing groups of more-or-less re­lated gen­era, for ex­am­ple brooms, which are found in the gen­era Cytisus, Genista and Spar­tium. Some of these groups are so use­ful that gar­den­ers even write books about them and form so­ci­eties ded­i­cated to their cul­ti­va­tion, for ex­am­ple heathers ( Cal­luna, Er­ica, Daboe­cia and many oth­ers). And com­mon names can be use­ful is­lands of stability when botanists start mon­key­ing with Latin names. Most Aster species are now in Sym­phy­otrichum, but you can still call them asters, or in­deed Michael­mas daisies.

Don’t ac­cept all names that ap­pear to in­di­cate a plant’s ori­gin at face value – some­times the au­thors of names weren’t sure where the plant came from, or the name is sim­ply a mis­take. No one is quite sure where Ma­ho­nia japon­ica comes from, but it doesn’t seem to be Ja­pan, al­though it has been cul­ti­vated there for cen­turies; our best guess is Tai­wan. Al­though M. japon­ica and M. bealei are pos­si­bly forms of the same species, and many plants in gar­dens are hy­brids of the two any­way. Sar­nia is an old name for Guernsey, so nat­u­rally the Guernsey lily is Ner­ine sarnien­sis, which would be fine if the plant in ques­tion weren’t a na­tive of South Africa. And the Por­tuguese squill re­ally is from Por­tu­gal, de­spite its Latin name be­ing Scilla pe­ru­viana.

You might think it would be some­one’s job to do some­thing about names like these, but I’m afraid it isn’t. There are plenty of rea­sons why plant names change, but be­ing wrong, mis­lead­ing or just plain un­pro­nounce­able – as in the case of Paeo­nia mlokose­witschii, which was named for Pol­ish botanist Ju­lia Mlokose­witsch – are not among them.


Clock­wise from top left: The genus Gre­vil­lea was dis­cov­ered in Aus­tralia in the 19th cen­tury by the Scot­tish botanist Robert Brown who named it in hon­our of one of the founders of the RHS, Charles Fran­cis Gre­ville; as its name sug­gests Arme­ria mar­itima is a species na­tive to coastal ar­eas of north­ern Europe; Scilla pe­ru­viana is not from Peru, it’s na­tive to Mediter­ranean ar­eas; the South African genus Tul­baghia was named by Lin­naeus for Ryk Tul­bagh, one-time gover­nor of the Dutch Cape Colony who had sent him sev­eral plants from the re­gion; this Cer­cidi­phyl­lum japon­icum is na­tive to Ja­pan, but Ma­ho­nia japon­ica is thought to be from Tai­wan; the species name of Salvia mi­cro­phylla lit­er­ally means small leaves, al­though like many Botan­i­cal Latin names it’s ac­tu­ally from Greek.

Clock­wise from top left: Ber­beris dar­winii is one of sev­eral species named for Charles Dar­win, who dis­cov­ered it in South Amer­ica in 1835 dur­ing the voy­age of HMS Bea­gle; the ni­grum in Ribes ni­grum, bet­ter known as black­cur­rant, refers to the colour of the berries; the botan­i­cal name of Caltha palus­tris and its com­mon name of marsh marigold both re­flect its pref­er­ence for marshy ground; the genus name in Aqui­le­gia canaden­sis is from the Latin for ea­gle, the species name refers to its coun­try of ori­gin, namely Canada; Acer da­vidii, in com­mon with sev­eral Chi­nese species is named for Jean Pierre Ar­mand David, a French priest and am­a­teur botanist who spent many years as mis­sion­ary in China; Cym­balaria mu­ralis is a plant, which as its species name sug­gests grows on walls.

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