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Botanical Names
by Dan Clost
by Dan Clost


First serious garden earned 25 cents from the Kemptville Horticultural Society when I was 12. Have been poor in horticulture ever since but rich in spirit.

Went to work writing the Good Earth column (over 500 articles published in newspaper, magazine, website and journal.) and learned that what was printed wasn't what I wanted to say and certainly not what Gentle Reader understood me to say. Subsequently have developed a certain clarity and economy of words.

Day job- nursery and production manager for a large nursery/garden centre
Side job- Garden restoration and renovations, design consultations, remedial pruning.
Night job- garden writer and communicator (overnight success in another 20 years)

Dan gardens in Canadian Zone 5b

November 18, 2001

If you think that botanical names are technical, precise, scientific and really tough to remember, you're quite right. When I began high school, I was afforded the opportunity to read Latin. As a farm lad this was not appealing so I enrolled into technical drafting. True, it eventually helped when I started landscape design courses; but, the Latin would have been much more useful today. It would have given me an understanding of the plants themselves. Botanical names make so much sense that we are left with only one difficulty: the sheer quantity of plants. 
Allen J Coombes, whose name appears as the author of "Dictionary of Plant Names," published by Timber Press, prefers that we use the term "scientific" name. College professors like "epithet": more precise but edging into jargon. Many of those long jawbreakers have Latin roots but there is some Greek in there as well. The important part is that these names are internationally understood. For example, we are familiar with Blueweed as that hoary offering that grows in poor soil and along roadsides. In the New England States it is more commonly known as Viper's Bugloss. To make it a tad more confusing, there are cultivated dwarf varieties called Viper's Bugloss (dwarf). However, no matter the common name, Echium vulgare is recognised as the weed's sobriquet.
Most often, the name of the plant, in spite of its fancy sound, refers to a specific characteristic or trait. Echinops, Globe thistles, means "like a hedgehog": Campanula, Bellflower, derives from campana or bell. It is as simple as that.
Well, I misled you. Along with simplicity, timing is equally important. Did you know that Bell wasn't the only chap who invented the telephone? He patented it first and the other gentleman just sort of faded away into the obscure pages of history and eclectic gardening columns. Couple this timing element with the observation that we all see different objects whilst looking at the same thing. A really good example of this is Lambsquarters. It's easy to see how this plant picked up its common name. When in bloom, the combination of white flowers twitching in a light breeze, can easily bring to mind the switching of a lamb's tail, hence lambsquarters. We can easily imagine some chap from Suffolk making that observation. But, what looks like the aft end of a sheep to some appeared quite differently to a Greek farmer. He looked at the leaves and saw a goose foot. So here we go: goose = cheno, podium = foot, and album = white. The scientific name is Chenopodium album instead of something like Ovis caudata album. 
The really neat aspect about all of this is that once you have learned some of the more common Latin terms, especially the colours, the easier it will be to associate the scientific name with the plant. How about the word compositae, meaning composite? This refers to a flower having two types of petals. Daisies, Blanket Flowers, Asters, Chicorys etc. are all this type. The showy petals that radiate out from a central hub are ray florets and the shorter, upright, compact disc florets make up the hub. This is helpful when you are trying to identify a new plant as it gives you place to start. 
By the way, here's another of my most used identification books- The Gardener's Encyclopedia of Plants & Flowers, a Dorling-Kindersley publication (A caution: this book and Readers Digest's "Practical Guide to Gardening in Canada" have very similar appearances.) It has more than 8,000 plants listed with over 4,000 colour photographs. Used in combination with a plant dictionary, it can help you with almost any plant there is. The exceptions are weeds and grasses.
A rose by any other name might smell just as sweet, but without the proper epithet how would we know? So no matter what "they"say, the nomenclature is important, especially with plants. Oh, when you are visiting your favourite nursery people toss a few of those jawbreaks at them. They will love you for it.

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