Gardening is like the Magic Circle. In the same way that magicians guard the secret of sawing in half the girl in the shiny bikini, so we are meant to respect the sanctity of nomenclature. (What? Quite, what’s that? It’s the system by which we name plants. That way, we can bandy a few Latin names around at a barbecue and everyone’s impressed. Mind you, we could just trot out the names of a few Spanish coastal villages and no one would be any the wiser.
To new gardeners, the whole system of botanical names is completely baffling and that’s how most gardeners would like to keep it. But it’s time to spill the beans.
Think of a plant name like describing a car. Let's say you have a Ford Escort 1.3GL. Now you immediately know something about that car. For starters it has certain characteristics that are common to all Fords. Also, this car is an Escort, so you know what shape it is. On top of that it's a 1.3GL so we’ve narrowed it right down and we know how big the engine is and whether it's got the basic trim or a spoiler and alloy wheels.
Take any plant. Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora’ will do. Ford is the generic or genus name Hydrangea. Escort is the species paniculata, and 1.3GL is the variety or cultivar 'Grandiflora'.
Now unless they’ve been living in a cardboard box for their entire lives, most people can recognize a Ford at a hundred paces. There are a number of distinguishing features, like the bonnet badge for example. Less people could narrow it down to an Escort and fewer still would know a 1.3GL if it ran them over.
Well, it’s exactly the same with gardeners and plants. They’ll all know a Hydrangea but not everyone will recognize the species paniculata and even less could pick it as 'Grandiflora'.
So, the next time some show-off gardening type points knowledgably at a plant and throws a word at you, the chances are they’ve done nothing more than pointing at a passing car and yelling "Jaguar" or "Peugeot".
Botanical names are international and describe specific plants, leaving no room for error. The names are derived from Latin and Greek and so they actually mean something. Hydrangea is from the Greek word 'hydor', meaning water, and 'aggeion' translates as vase, in reference to the shape of the seed capsule.
Paniculata refers to the grouping of flowers - in panicles - and Grandiflora means that those flowers are big. And so we immediately know something about the plant in question. Other botanical names may describe the country of origin, like ‘madagascariensis’, the colour, ‘purpurea’, or the discoverer, ‘livingstonia’.
But can’t we just use nice simple, English common names? No we can't. This system was devised by Carl Linnaeus about three hundred years ago and it actually works really well. Take Acer palmatum dissectum atropurpureum. I’ll accept it’s a bit of a mouthful, especially when compared to the common name: Japanese maple. But the problem is that there are thousands of different Japanese maples, so you don’t know which one we're interested in.
To make matters worse, an individual plant could have five different common names depending on where you are in the country. And, don’t forget, most of our garden plants are from abroad so their common names won’t even be in English, they could be in Swahili or Sanskrit. How confusing would that be?
Over the centuries the botanical system has been constantly developed and improved by countless thousands of botanists and, believe it or not, it’s quite simple to get to grips with the basics.
First you pick up the commonplace names like Audi, Rover and Toyota. Then there might be a few really special and unusual plants that you particularly covet. An Aston Martin perhaps. You soon realize there’s a particular variety of it you really like and eventually you recognize that one as a DB4.
Pretty soon you’ll spot a tristar on a hubcap and instantly know it's a Mercedes and before long you’ll be able to identify the species from the shape of headlights alone. Plant breeders come up with new cultivars (or cultivated varieties) all the time. Like that new squat Mercedes A class for example.
A word of warning though. When you choose your plants, just remember that some species like leylandii, Russian vine and pampas grass have as much class as Ladas, Austin Allegros and Datsun Cherrys.
If you want to to have a go at getting the feel of some plant names browse through our Essential Plants list, or if you want lots more detail Ask George About Plants.
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