Is Taxonomy Too Taxing?

Do you have a problem with botanical names for plants ?  Are you intimidated by the Latin?  Maybe you agree with Shakespeare when he said:

‘ What’ s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.  Romeo and Juliet.

It is true it would smell just as sweet but we wouldn’ t be able to talk about it would we, if there was no name that we could all agree on? It would make blogging pointless.






Since Theophrastus man has been attempting to classify plants and put them into groups according to what they looked like.  The scientific language for this was always Latin. Until Linneus came along plant names were getting longer and more unwieldy.

Linneus created his  Systema  Naturae which was a  innovative attempt to classify living organisms in a scientific way. In Fundamenta Botanica  he laid out his sexual system  of classification and it outraged people because he classified plants according to their reproductive organs. He counted the stamens and pistils  and his descriptions were deliberately provocative and caused outrage. You can imagine how a description like this went down. ‘ Therefore the Calyx is the bedroom, the Corolla is the curtain,the Filaments are the spermatic vessels, the Anthers are the testicles,  the Pollen is the sperm, the Stigma is the vulva, the Style is the vagina…’   Oh dear. An interest in flowers had always been considered nice for ladies and now here it was turned into pornography.  Most people refused to accept that plants behaved like that.

Binominal nomenclature.

What we really have to thank Linneus for is the system  we have now, which is called Binominal nomenclature.  It is a very good system which means that plants have  two names, the first is the genus which is a bit like a surname. The next is called the specific epithet and is a descriptive word.  The genus (plural genera) is always written with a capital letter and the specific epithet never is, even if it commemorates a name. Both words are written in italics. The name of the cultivar is in inverted commas and it is not italicised.
Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’.

I don’ t understand why people have such a resistance to mastering the correct botanical name for plants. Is it because it is considered elitist, or showing off to know the correct name? Is it a fear of Latin? True, Latin is not taught so  much in schools now, but my Latin ‘O’ level study of Virgil isn’ t much help in learning botanical names. It does take a little extra effort to learn them but it is worth it. If you know the correct name for a plant, it is international and you can discuss plants with anyone in the world who is interested in plants. How amazing to have an international language.

The other great advantage  of the binominal system is that the specific epithet often tells you something about the plant. It may tell you the colour. For example: coccinea= red, lutea = yellow etc.  It may describe the leaves or the petals or the form of the plant. E.G. foetida = stinky, horridus = bristly, (not horrid). It may tell you where the plant grows and that is useful to know. For instance; palustris= marshy, arvensis= in the fields.

Maybe the specific epithet tells you where the plant comes from. But you have to be careful here. Scilla peruviana comes from the Mediterranean, not Peru. The name of the ship that brought it to the UK was called The Peru. Sometimes the name commemorates the name of the person who found it, or the discoverer names it in someone else’s honour. It is considered bad form to name a plant after yourself.

There is a great little book which is very helpful when you are trying to learn Latin names.  Plant Names Simplified. Their Pronunciation Derivation and Meaning by A T Johnson and H. A. Smith. I love this book and refer to it all the time. Obviously if you never learnt Latin it is a bit of a challenge coming to grips with the fact that nouns can be masculine, feminine or neuter and the ending of the specific epithet must agree with the genus. We used to be able to buy a plant called Polygonum bistorta ‘Superbum’, and what a delight to those of us with a childish sense of humour to have a plant with a super bum. The name of the genus was changed to Persicaria and so unfortunately the plant became Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’. What a pity, it has nothing to do with bums at all. But never fear we still have a silly bum. For the time being at least.

Silybum marianum

Silybum marianum








Last week Christina at Myhesperidesgarden and Wellywoman discussed the problem of constantly changing plant names and what we should do about it.  Christina suggested that we should have a debate. Do we give up on the Latin and use common names for plants? Do we just ignore changes and stick with the names we have learnt so painstakingly? After all they are called synonyms. Unfortunately in botanical terms a synonym is not interchangeable with the current correct name.

Let’ s look at common names first. But how common are they? Where I grew up the local name for Caltha palustris was May Blobs. When I came to live in Suffolk nobody knew what I was talking about if I mentioned  May Blobs. You may call the flower Marsh Marigold or King Cups. Or you may call it something else because there are 31  different local names for the plant. So really, pretty as it may be, a vernacular name is useless for discussing plants.

Caltha palustris

Caltha palustris








I have noticed that American bloggers are very keen on vernacular names for flowers and I have to say that if they don’ t give the Latin name too, I have no idea what they are talking about and I don’ t suppose anyone in the UK does. The names may be pretty but they are unknown here and I don’ t want to waste brain space on learning them. We have a perfectly good  botanical name for them which everyone understands. The case is made worse by the fact that there are many, many so- called lilies which aren’ t lilies at all. And what about harebells and black-eyed susies? There are quite a few totally unrelated plants masquerading under these names. Some nurseries add to the confusion by making up nice sounding names for plants which they think will sell better if they don’ t have those horrid Latin names to put people off.  I really believe that if you are interested enough in plants to write a blog you should be nerdy enough to learn  to use the grown up names so that we all know what you are talking about. After all nobody finds Rhododendron, Penstemon, Forsythia difficult.  People use the name Geranium quite happily ( and very often blithely ignoring the fact that this word hasn’ t been used to describe the Pelargonium since 1738.) Probably the same people insist on calling the Hippeastrum an Amaryllis. Still at least they are using the Latin. Let’s just have a quick look at the difference between these constantly confused plants.


But I guess the real problem in confusion in plant names  is the ever increasing number of plants which are being reclassified. It is wearying for us all, expensive for nurseries and quickly puts books out of date.

There is an International Code of Botanical Nomenclature and there are rules which is a good thing because it does help to avoid confusion. For instance no plant is allowed more than one name. If in the past more than one name has been assigned to a plant then the first name is the correct one. Another rule which I think is a bit of a spoilsport is that tautology  (tautonyms) is not allowed. In zoology ‘ Bufa bufa’ is a toad. The correct name for a gorilla is ‘ Gorilla gorilla’.  The one I particularly like is the former name for the European Chaffinch which was Chloris chloris. Sadly this has now been changed to  Carduelis chloris. None of these tautonyms are allowed in the plant world. The nearest was  Ziziphus zizyphus  ( a sort of date)  which wasn’ t quite a tautonym but even this was changed to Ziziphus jujuba. We still do have Salacca zalaca though which is a kind of palm. Perhaps nobody has noticed that it is almost a tautology.

The most usual reason for plants being reclassified is the fact that we now have DNA testing which reveals the relationships between plants far more efficiently than just looking at them ever did.  The new model is called cladistics. Basically this means that there is only one line of parentage for every species and you cannot have two  species in the same genus which are not related.  Of course this has led to a great shake up of the plant world and a lot of reorganisation. It is unfortunate,  but it is inevitable really. It is not the result of sudden capricious whims of taxonomists, it is really necessary to sort things out in the light of new understanding. For example the huge family of Aster has been split up because it was discovered that American asters were not related in any way to the ones elsewhere in the world. The Chrysanthemum family  was split up but garden growers were allowed to keep the name for their showy perennials.

When it was discovered that Australian wattles were not related to ones anywhere else in the world they were allowed to keep the name Acacia and the ones in other parts of the world had to change.

Of course there is often disagreement in the way that  plants are classified. Taxonomists are divided between the ‘ lumpers’ and the ‘splitters’. But this has been the case since the time of Darwin. The most frustrating thing is when a plant is changed as when Veronica became a Hebe  in the 1929 and then after DNA analysis it  recently  became  a Veronica again.

It is difficult for us to keep up because these changes have traditionally only been reported in peer- reviewed scientific  journals which we probably don’ t have access to. Things have changed though because new plants no longer have to be described in Latin and they can be published on line.

I think as bloggers we have the great advantage that we can keep each other up to date and indeed this is what we do. We talk about plants and with much grumbling we take on board the new names. I have learnt  about Symphiotrichum from fellow bloggers this year and I am sure as more plants get reassigned we will manage to keep abreast. Let’ s look upon it as a challenge.

Here are a couple more plants with new names that I am gradually getting to grips with. The lovely  Cimicifuga simplex ‘Atropurpurea’   has become Actaea simplex ‘Atropurpurea’ . The good news is that when the genus changes the name usually keeps its specific epithet.

Actaea simplex 'Atropurpurea'

Actaea simplex ‘Atropurpurea’








The tall Sedums have been renamed Hylotelphium after a study at Tokyo University realised that they should not be classified in the same family as creeping stonecrops. Hang on though, I think this change is still being thrashed out.










I will finish with a poem that I like by Robert Frost.  I have noticed that the bottom of my garden which has been an orchard for hundreds of years is riddled with honey fungus, Armillaria mellea. The apple and plum trees are particularly vulnerable but so are roses. Surprisingly they all belong to the Rosacae family.

The Rose Family.

The rose is a rose
And was always a rose
But now the theory goes
That the apple’ s a rose
And the pear is and so’ s
The plum I suppose.
Dear only knows
What will next prove a rose
You of course are a rose…
But were always a rose.     Robert Frost.

I would love to hear your opinion about plant taxonomy, please join in with the debate. I see that Christina has posted about this subject today I am going over to see what she has to say now. Please have a look and watch out for Wellywoman’s contribution. And do join in. This concerns us all.

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77 Responses to Is Taxonomy Too Taxing?

  1. Nell Jean says:

    Botanical names are important to differentiate between true lilies and Hemerocallis but I tend to call Zantedeschia a Calla Lily regardless.

    The Geranium issue was moot with me until someone told me their Hydrangea was a ‘porch geranium’ — except for Geranium maculatum</.i, true geraniums do not thrive in my warm humid coastal south climate. We've called Pelargoniums ‘Geraniums’ for centuries here.

    On the other hand my personal preference for .Catharanthus roseus. is Madagascar Periwinkle and Vinca minor is a pet peeve when it’s called periwinkle.

    • Chloris says:

      Lilies, geraniums and periwinkles are all really good examples of the same names being used for entirely different and unrelated plants. I think this shows how we do need a common language that is quite unambiguous.

  2. Pauline says:

    Yes, let’s have more Latin! In spite of one of my neighbours ridiculing me when I mention Latin names, at least we all know what we are talking about. People from different countries using Latin can understand each other, as when our son’s Mother in Law from Moldova came to visit. Her English wasn’t good then, but we could still talk gardening because we knew the names of plants in Latin. It takes me a time to get used to new name changes, but I get there eventually.

    • Chloris says:

      Oh good, I knew you would agree with the importance of Latin, Pauline. If people have a problem with it, I really don’ t care if they find it pretentious. I don’ t believe in dumbing down in any subject, but particularly not in horticulture which is my passion.

  3. You are correct in noting Americans typically use common names, a sloppy habit which we should make more effort to correct. It is a self-perpetuating problem–because everyone uses them, we learn common names first, and then find it difficult to adopt the scientific. Even when writing for publication, I will use the common name because it is the one most likely to be recognized, followed by the botanical name. For example, Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), previously known as (Eupatorium purpureum).

    The only addition I have for your succinct description of botanical nomenclature is that the use of italics signifies a foreign language. I mention this because it helped me understand why a part of, but not all, the name would be italicized.

    Plant Names Simplified is a great little book, easy to use and so helpful. It is among the handful of resource materials I keep within easy reach of my desk. I often recommend it to my groups when in traveling in England, as it can always be found in the bookshop at Wisley and other RHS gardens.

    Like you, I will be happy when DNA testing is complete. Let’s hope it brings an end to the renaming, at least in our lifetime.

    • Chloris says:

      I don’ t know whether American bloggers realise that their particular common names for plants are almost entirely unknown here. ‘ Merry Bells’ , ‘ Twinkly Stars’ or whatever they are called, seem more appropriate for children than for serious gardeners. We have our own set of common names but I put my hands over my ears and refuse to hear them or to talk about plants with people who use them.
      A good point about the reason for italicised foreign words.
      The book is really great and it is also always useful to have an up- to- date Plantfinder.

  4. Tina says:

    An excellent post, Chloris. I agree that the use and some basic understanding of the Latin names for plants is vital for gardeners and garden bloggers, in particular. What annoys me most are nurseries who don’t use the botanical name. Do you know how many “hummingbird” or “firecracker” plants are sold under those names, but then not distinguished properly by the correct scientific name? A bunch! Honestly, there’s no excuse. Thanks additionally for the book recommendation–it will oin my gardening book library very soon.

    • Chloris says:

      Thanks Tina. I can’ t imagine what Hummingbirds or Firecrackers are but I suspect that these names have been made up by the nurseries. Unforgivable. Don’ t buy them.
      I think you will find the book very helpful.

  5. I love Latin names because I am a giant nerd but also because they’re accurate. But I think a few should be revised to be more accurate such as ‘campanula collapsus’ for my ‘Summertime Blues’ that are determined to lay on the ground and ‘zinnia watermeeverydayus’ for my thirsty zinnias. If we’re going for absolutism, then I need names that are honest! 😉

    • Chloris says:

      I do agree. If there is no such thing as Campanula collapsus or Zinnia watermeeverydayus then there should be. I think the taxonomists in the animal kingdom have more fun than we do. There are fungus beetles called ‘ Gelae baen’, ‘ Gelae belae’, ‘ Gelae donut’ and ‘ Gelae Fish’. And there is a flower beetle called ‘Eurygenius’. These are names you wouldn’ t forget. It seems that botanists take themselves more seriously.

  6. Jane Strong says:

    Well, to tell the truth, I never thought I’d see this in discussion in a blog. Congratulations, Chloris, for tackling such a thorny subject. For me, it’s all about communication. Does the person or audience I am talking to understand me? Do they know which plant I am talking about? With friends out hiking it is always binomials (also called scientific or Latin names) , with my native plant newsletter, it is both, with most all others, it is common names only, which I sometimes have to look up. This all leads to which name to use. Common names tend to change over space, while scientific names change over time. So it matters where you are and how old you are which names are useful, i.e., which names communicate the correct meaning. The biggest problem with the Latin or scientific names is pronunciation. How is spoken? The funny thing is that sometimes my botanical hiking friends will pronounce a botanical term a certain way that I don’t understand, but that is because they read it in a book and haven’t had the years of Latin I have. So there is more confusion even speaking the same language. Nurseries here will use the old scientific names because that’s what people know and that’s what sells plants. Sometimes you will see the new name in parentheses. Books use the names of the publishing date. Then there’s political correctness; many common names are no longer in use here in western North America and people have to make up a new name to avoid being challenged by certain groups. All in all, a very prickly problem. Personally I like the Latin names because of the information they give; but, on the other hand, searching for the origin of the name shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is highly entertaining.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you for a great comment Jane. It is indeed all about communication and that it is why it is so important that we have a common language that is understood all round the world. Pronunciation is another difficulty of course. I give talks sometimes and I am always a bit worried if there are experts in the audience, whether my pronunciation is correct. Some words seem to vary according to who is speaking. For instance, how do you pronounce ‘ Nerine’?

  7. snowbird says:

    I loved Casa’s reply!!!
    I like the fact that the Latin names are universally understood, but I’m glad we don’t have to refer to all things in Latin….just imagine the problem we’d have with all the different species of dog….or birds….or…Insects!
    I was forced to learn Latin at my convent school, my teacher was truly fearsome and would have us recite huge passages in Latin to the class….oh my….woe betide us if we ever made a mistake. Now because of those hideous years I have a deep dislike of Latin, and break out in cold chills at the sight of a Latin word….even though I can still recite entire passages and prayers…..which is silly I know, I secretly enjoy my silent vow never using Latin names…..what a hopeless case I am, pitiful, I know. So you shall have to turn a blind and extremely tolerant eye to me and my idiosyncrasies…or give me a hearyt slapping of the wrist!
    Changing names are extremely annoying though! xxx

    • Chloris says:

      Tammy is always funny isn’ t she? Jason at Gardeninacity made me laugh out loud too.
      Some creatures’ names are fun. Don’ t you like Bufo bufo for a toad or Troglodytes troglodytes for a wren?
      I had an awful Latin teacher too, a vicar who was really creepy. But still proper plant names are so satisfying. Forget all the prayers and Punic Wars or whatever you had to study with your nasty nuns and enjoy the words. Come on, give it a try.

  8. Excellent post. I like the Robert Frost poem. I do try to use both the common and botanical names for plants in my blog, but I also find myself exasperated by all the name changes. It seems to me that the taxonomists could at least meet us half way by choosing more reasonable new genus names. I mean, Symphyotrichum for aster, really? And then there is Lamprocapnos replacing Dicentra. Lamprocapnos sounds like a disease you get from being bitten by an eel, or perhaps a mental disorder whose victims have a compulsive need to wear lampshades on their heads.

    Perhaps a good compromise would be a rule that new genus names have to have the same number of syllables as the old ones. Also new names could be screened for ugliness or absurdity by a committee of gardeners.

    • Cathy says:

      Oh yes, they should let US decide on the new names… I’d love to be on that committee. Power to the gardeners!

    • Chloris says:

      And what a great comment, you did make me laugh. I laughed so much I had to tell the Pianist what I was laughing at. I think it was wasted on him though.
      I love your Lamprocapnos sounding like a disease from being bitten by eels and even better a compulsive need to wear lampshades on the head. Brilliant and thank you I shall never have any trouble remembering it now. I shall only have to look at a Dicentra to have these wonderful images in my head.
      I don’ t know about screening for absurdity, I rather like the idea of absurd names. It would make learning them more fun.

      • The more absurd the better. I once bought a plant simply because its name was penstemon whippleanus. I loved walking around the garden saying, “Ooh!! Look at my whipple anus!”

  9. Alison says:

    I agree with you that Latin names are necessary for communicating what plant exactly you are talking about. I try to use them in my own blog, if I can remember them. I prefer Latin over common names. And I think it’s cool that they are using DNA analysis to figure out how plants are in fact related, or not. But it does get annoying to have to learn new ones, my aging brain can’t take it, so I reserve the right to moan about it. I didn’t learn Latin in school, but I don’t worry about pronunciation (much). If I’m not sure, I pronounce it several ways and the listener can take their pick. I must have the same juvenile sense of humor that you have, because I giggled over ‘Superbum’ too. I recently read an article that said they have started doing the same DNA analysis on birds, and have discovered connections they didn’t realize, for example, that flamingos are related to pigeons. So now I wonder if they will start renaming them.

    • Chloris says:

      Flamingos and pigeons. Who would have thought it? I think we are all entitled to moan about the name changes but at the same time it is quite exciting. Learning more about how plants are related is going to give more exciting opportunities for hybridizing. Maybe we will get some lovely new plants.

  10. Christina says:

    Thank you Chloris for giving us such a perfect description of the why’s and wherefores of the system, from all the comments so far here and on my post I am detecting a consensus that most of us do want a universal system but that changes as little as possible. We are living at a time when more changes are being made than have been made since the system began and ‘normal’ gardeners need the consistency so we can communicate clearly with gardeners around the world. I’ll be back to read more comments as they arrive.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you very much for getting this debate going Christina. I am really enjoying everyones’ comments. It is great to have so much lively debate. Gardener bloggers are thoughtful people, very sure of their opinions. I have noticed that whenever I have written a more serious post about gardening ideas people join in with great enthusiasm. I love it.

  11. Hollis says:

    Really great post, Chloris! … I have PDF’d it to share with others when needed (ok?). I do hope this debate continues. As I’m officially a botanist (have a degree), I used just scientific (Latin) names for a long time, but could see it was a losing battle in certain arenas. In management and conservation, especially of public lands (USA), Latin can seem so off-putting, academic, snobbish, etc. AND we’re trying to persuade people that plants and vegetation are important. So common names are important. The US government is trying to standardize plant common names (search on USDA PLANTS database), which sometimes results in comical-to-us names for our familiar plants. So even here we have to be careful and use regional common names in talking with folks.

    Ah names – a necessary evil, kinda like indoor plumbing 😉

    I was thinking as I read your intro that if we used Linnaeus’s approach – referring to plant vaginas and testicles – perhaps more students would sign up for Plant Taxonomy!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Hollis. I realised that you are a scientist and it is interesting to see this from a botanist’ s point of view. It seems so odd to have to try and standardise common names that won’ t be recognised outside of America. It is a pity that some people are put off botanical names because they are seen as elitist.
      The thing is you can have indoor plumbing without needing to talk about it in Latin or any other language, but we need to talk about plants and find a common language to do it in. You are right perhaps we need more Linneus to get people interested. He loved Latin so much that he latinised his own name. But his descriptions are quite bawdy.

  12. mrsdaffodil says:

    A most entertaining and educational post. I’m sure I will refer back to it in the future. Common names are quaint and interesting, but the botanical names must be given as well. I find this subject fascinating and keep trying to find time to really delve into it. I’m sure the name changes will slow down after awhile, as the DNA discoveries are applied.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you. I expect the reclassifying of plants will slow down eventually. It is exasperating to have to keep on relearning names but still I think it is rather an exciting time and a fascinating subject.

  13. rusty duck says:

    It is right that plants are properly classified, now that we have the technology to do so, and I suppose we will have to put up with the pain while it is going on. The Linnaean system makes perfect sense to me, even if I do struggle to remember all the names. Especially when the squirrels make off with the labels.

  14. Chloris says:

    oh yes, those pesky Sciurus carolinensis. They have a particular penchant for Galanthus labels I find.

  15. Cathy says:

    More fascinating discussion…. I forget to mention in my comment on Christina’s post that there are no doubt many of us who love words and knowing where they come from – one of the reasons why I am so pleased I did a couple of years of Latin. I shall certainly look out for ‘Plant Names Simplified’ to supplement my knowledge, which is inevitably rusty after all those years. I thought Linneus’ sexual classification, although racy, was a great way of explaining basic plant biology!

  16. Chloris says:

    It was even more shocking when Linneus described polyandrous fertilisation and talked about ‘ ,20 males or more in bed with the same female’..His system was dismissed as ‘loathsome harlotry’ .
    l love words too and take great delight in Latin plant names. But the constant changes are a pain.

  17. Cathy says:

    I rely so much on botanical names as I often get to know a new wildflower only in German, and want to know the English name: the botanical names are my link and that is why I try and learn them. Although I moan when I hear of another change (with asters being a real shock this year!) I think we are all so good at remembering the names of our plants that a few extra botanical terms will not throw us, will they? A central register/information point for nurseries and gardeners worldwide would be useful though. My online nursery lists my Persicaria with three different names, and your Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’ is also listed as Polygonum bistorta ‘Superbum’ and Bistorta officinalis! So which one should we use?! I will continue to use Cimicifuga simplex simply because I needed ages to learn how to say it properly, but am pleased if its new name can give us more clarity about its origins or relatives. I don’t use Pelargonium because nobody else does, and I get funny looks here if I call people’s Geraniums funny names…. 😉 So I think, at the end of the day it is up to us to decide for ourselves whether we embrace a new name or not. It certainly gives us something to collectively complain about and discuss!! A very enjoyable post and discussion Chloris. I shall be looking through any later comments too. Thanks for such an interesting article!

  18. Chloris says:

    Thanks Cathy and thanks for taking the time to join in with such an interesting comment. That is a good point, there should be some sort of central register where we good check these new names out.

    • Jane Strong says:

      There is.
      www dot the plantlist dot org

      from Kew
      The Plant List is a working list of all known plant species.
      The Plant List includes 1,064,035 scientific plant names of species rank. Of these 350,699 are accepted species names.

  19. Julie says:

    Interesting and thought provoking post. I enjoy the common names for plants and the history they represent, particular for British wildflowers. I love the American plant name Joe Pyeweed which makes me smile far more than the name Eupatorium maculatum. For me, the name conjures up a whole range of American Historical garden images. I want to know more about its common name and how it became to be called Joe Pyeweed than its botanical name. There are several plants in my own garden called thingy and omg, what is that. I knew once and I’ve forgotten. Sometimes when I write a blog I cannot always remember its full botanical or scientific name and have to check, my iPad corrects my spelling and insists every botanical name is a typo. Occasionally in a reply I use an abbreviated and lazy description using just the cultivar. There are some plant names Parthenocissus quinquefolia for example I could say out loud over and over as its so satisfying to pronounce. Most plant names wether, botanical or common I enjoy, even name changes, but is that something to do with enjoying language? My biggest gripe is labelling though and when I want the absolute bones of the matter I want to know the full correct botanical name but if the common name is added in brackets I would not mind that either. I am working down my reader in reverse order tonight, so have not yet read Christina’s post.

    • Chloris says:

      I must admit that I am not so well up on wild flower Latin names as I am on horticultural ones. That is becauses I learnt the wild flower ones when I was a small child.
      I am like you, I like the sound of words. I remember as a child saying ‘ Primula denticulata’ over and over again until everyone told me to shut up. I still kept on saying it in my mind though. That’ s probably how I learn plant names, specially if I like the sound of them.

      • AnnetteM says:

        “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man!” It is amazing how you can trace our main interests well back into childhood.

  20. As an American blogger I personally love and use Latin. I think everyone should use the Latin for clarity’s sake. As a local interest thing, I also love the common names, it is so interesting what people come up with – May Blobs, fabulous, love it. I once had a client who called Celosia ‘Boob Highs’ never could quite come to terms with that as it depends on how tall you are.
    Your love of Liquidambar is what really stumps me.

  21. Chloris says:

    Common names are interesting but as you say just for local interest. A bit like pet names in the family. I am quite intrigued by Celosia ‘ Boob Highs’ though. I’ d like to know more. Were they very very tall celosias or was it a tiny little lady? Or a lady with extremely saggy boobs perhaps?
    I know Liquidambars are weeds over there but they never seed around here and they are a wonderful autumn colour. And do admit they have a beautiful name.

  22. Brian Skeys says:

    Latin is an elitist language in the UK today, you only have to look at the schools who teach it. It is an international language both for Horticulture and I presume medicine. It should be taught in all schools. We should try to use it in our blogs, but be tolerant when mistakes are made, it can happen to anyone.

  23. Chloris says:

    Yes, it is an elitist language which is a pity, it used to be taught in all grammar schools. I can’ t see it ever being brought back though. Schools seem to be having enough trouble getting children to study French. Learning Latin at school hasn’ t helped me a lot with botanical nomenclature though. The book I mentioned has been the most useful tool for me.
    I think we all make mistakes now and then when writing about plants. . But garden bloggers are nice, tolerant people. In a year of blogging I have never come across any trolls. Everybody is so kind and supportive.

  24. Love it. It was a tiny lady probably saggy as well – the Celosia maybe came up to my knees.. I am 5′-7″…we laughed about it for years. The Celosia was beautiful, no idea what it really was.
    Bought it from a Farmers seed exchange (she asked me not to tell her daughter what she called the plants) !! More gardening fun.

    Liquidambar is a wonderful name. I think my favorite is Metasequoia glyptostroboides, hope I spelled it right.

  25. Well I am one of those exasperating American bloggers who uses precious few Latin terms…probably because Latin was not taught (shame on our ed system). You must cringe Chloris when you read my posts. And as others of us have said American gardeners generally learn the common names and have to back into learning the Latin which I have still not done. I do try to provide more Latin names in posts. But like Julie, I adore the common names and find them fascinating as it goes with the folklore.

    I do understand why it is important to use a common language, but Americans are partial to our version of English…we do need to get over that and become bilingual or multilingual or at least in my case botanical lingual. I do feel like a dope as I do use the words geranium for both plants ( and I know the difference) and of course sellers here use amaryllis…but I promise to get better….is there a Rosetta Stone course for botanical names? I could use it…

    • Chloris says:

      Of course I don’ t cringe when I read your posts Donna. I love reading them they are always so packed full of interest; an absolute delight.
      I agree some of the vernacular plant names are pretty and interesting and tell us much about folklore. I do resent the ones made up by nurseries though who are trying to make their plants sound more interesting by inventing a name.
      The trouble is though when we are talking to gardeners round the world we do need a common language. And we have it in Latin. I think it is easier here in the UK, because as gardeners we automatically learn the botanical names.
      I don’ t know about a Rosetta Stone but the little book I mentioned,: Plant Names Simplified is very good.

  26. pbmgarden says:

    You wrote an interesting article and it stimulated some fascinating comments as well. I try to research my plants and provide accurate Latin names in my writing, but I also adore the personality encapsulated within the common names. It’s wonderful techniques are available to help identify plants accurately.

  27. Alain says:

    I entirely agree with you Chloris, but with old grumps like me who, for instance, have known Campanula muralis and have had to learn to call it Campanula portenschlagiana, the learning curve can be frustrating. Somehow, muralis was so simple and even descriptive. I am sure you know what I mean.

    • Chloris says:

      I agree Alain. Some of the new names make me weary. Portenschlagiana is a mouthful. Some of them are fun though. Jason at Garden in a city says that Dicentra has changed its name to Lamprocapnos. He says it sounds like a compulsive need to wear lampshades on the head. I shan’ t forget that name in a hurry.

  28. This was a very interesting article. I find that I tend to learn the botanical names of plants as I learn to grow them. Each time I acquire a new plant I research it and the botanical name soon becomes as familiar as the common name. Learning the Latin names HAS helped me differentiate between plants, since so many have different common names depending on location, sometimes even within the same state. You can look up a common plant name online and end up with pictures of 15 different plants. Learning the Latin is useful for this if for nothing else! I may not be able to pronounce the Latin names, but I can read them and type them!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you, I agree, this is the way to do it. The only way for a serious gardener.
      I don’ t think it matters how we pronounce the words as long as we know them.

  29. Kris P says:

    While I joked that I was tempted to give up proper botanical names for common names in a comment to Christina, I actually prefer the use of proper names for clarity’s sake myself, although I will often add names used in common parlance in the US in parentheses to help readers with the identification. Jane is right that common names vary over distance and, the greater the distance, the more disconnected they get. For example, I remember laughing when I discovered that Solierolia soleirolii, known as “baby’s tears” here, is called “mind-your-own business” in the UK – how could we ever align those 2 references without the Latin name? Keeping up with the changes is the biggest struggle, especially when nurseries and botanical guides often use outdated terms. I usually hear of name changes through the blogging community but the source providing the update is seldom identified, making verification difficult, especially when there are so many contradictory references on-line. I saw Jane’s note on The Plant List dot org and have added that to my general reference list as my go-to source for the most current information available.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you for this interesting comment Kris. So if I started to talk about Mind Your Own Business, American bloggers would be mystified. Maybe they would be offended. I have never heard of Baby’s Tears. I believe that Gypsophila is called ‘Baby’s Breath’, though not by me. No, we really need to use the proper botanical names when we are talking to people all round the world.
      Like you I often hear about name changes through the blogging community and that is great if we can all help each other to keep up.

      • Kris P says:

        As a case in point, Chloris, you may want to take a look at a recent post on the blog succulentsandmore dot com, addressing a significant change within the genus Aloe. There are now several new genus encompassing plants that formerly were classified simply as Aloes. The new genus include Aloidendron, Alioampelos, Gonialoe and Kumara.

  30. Annette says:

    What a thought-provoking post, Chloris! I don’t communicate in common names (or very rarely) because common names change from one village/country to the next and it can be tiring to discuss plants if others don’t know the Latin names. The constant changing of names is a pain and makes me mad at times but there’s no way around it. So I tell myself that it’ll keep my brain alive if I want to keep up with things and this helps. Although I didn’t like Latin at university I never had any problems learning plant names which only shows that one learns easily if one has a passion for something.

    • Chloris says:

      I agree Annette. I expect the German common names are different again. How tedious if we all had to try to learn the common names for plants from around the world. If you are really interested in something as we are, then it seems to me to be obvious that you want to learn the correct names. I don’ t understand why people resist it.
      Name changes are a pain but they keep us on our toes.

  31. AnnetteM says:

    A really interesting article. I hadn’t realised what depth of feeling there was about this in the blogging community. How great to get a real discussion like this going.
    I now know what one of my New Year’s resolutions had better be.
    I will start small and try to get the capitalisation of Latin names correct – at the moment I have a real mixture on my blog as I didn’t know what was correct before. Then I will try to use the Latin names where possible, though maybe with the common names as well.
    Thanks for enlightening me.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Annette. It is so interesting to hear everyones’ opinions about this subject. Getting the botanical names right when you are writing about them is a bit of a learning curve but once you understand the rules it becomes easier.

  32. Flighty says:

    A thoroughly interesting, and informative, post.
    I’m guilty of using common rather than proper names, although I always like to know the latter. The all too frequent changes are a pain.
    The other comments are enlightening, and I agree with much of what has been said.
    What I’d like to know is why we use proper names for flowers but not for vegetables. xx

  33. Chloris says:

    What an interesting point. We don’ t think of using the Latin names for vegetables or for animals or birds either. How odd.

  34. Being a bit of a late comer to gardening, I am unfamiliar with man y of the common names of plants which can be a bit of a hinderance sometimes but on the other hand, means I can’t get some genera confused quite so easily.
    I make the effort to attempt to learn the proper names of my plants, whether or not I can pronounce it, is another matter!!
    I once asked my readers if they preferred the Latin or common names for plants. Consensus was the Latin names, which cheered me up no end as I didn’t fancy trying to learn the alternatives and as you pointed out, some plants can have more than one. great post Chloris

  35. What a great discussion, Chloris. I find it interesting that my questionable memory sometimes has more trouble remembering the common names and sometimes the Latin names, depending upon the plant. No idea why that is. I totally agree that the Latin nomenclature is desirable, and I find it comforting that in this diverse, wide world gardeners can speak the same language even if it isn’t their native tongue (and fascinating that it’s an otherwise “dead” language–what a wonderful use for it). I learned basic Latin in primary school. I don’t remember much of it (or of my French), but I suppose being exposed to it has helped me a bit with plant names. The most difficult thing for me is, as you say the fact that plant names are changing quite a bit recently with the DNA research. Once the names are set, it will be much easier. I do need to practice with my Latin plant names. With that said, that’s one reason I’m a blogger and not a botanist. I would have trouble remembering them all on the fly! Great post!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Beth. I don’ t bother learning common names, it seems like a waste of effort and brain space. I am not always sure how to spell names but it is so easy to look things up and since I have been blogging I am getting better.

  36. mattb325 says:

    It’s a great discussion. I enjoyed the comment about the acacias being allowed to remain for the Australian plants: I remember years ago thumbing through great volumes of dry texts for botanical keying exercises.
    While the changes to the binomial system are irksome enough, the changes higher up are even more horrid. At that time, the whole pea family had been split and I think Fabaceae Mimosoideae Acacieae was the then currency, but the texts were 20 years out of date. Lord only knows what it is now! But, with advances in technology, it is just something we have to get used to…

  37. croftgarden says:

    Sorry late joining this discussion, but well done Chloris. I have a few points I’d like to throw in.
    First botanical scientific names use both Latin and Greek and you don’t have to know either to use the correct nomenclature – although it is fun to have a glossary around around to look at the derivation of some of the names. Pronunciation is not that important, allegedly you can tell where a botanist was trained depending on their pronunciation.
    The binomial name will also give you some information about the biology of the plant, as plants which are closely related belong to the same genus. So if you know a plant belongs to the genus Geranium you will have a reasonable idea of what it looks like and how it grows.
    I know we all grumble when the names change, but it is for a reason and it is telling you something about plant evolution and relationships, so embrace the knowledge.
    I know vernacular names are important in terms of our linguistic and cultural heritage, but please take up the challenge to learn and use the scientific name. Once you start it gets easier and it will give you a new insight to your plants.
    So perhaps I should make a New Year resolution to stop being lazy and always use the botanical name with the vernacular in my blogs.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you very much Christine for this excellent summing up. You are right vernacular names are important for our cultural and linguistic heritage as long as they weren’ t minted last week by some nurseryman. Personally, I haven’ t got the time or the brain space to bother learning them.

      • croftgarden says:

        I try not to get on my scientific high horse about “Latin names” as I can be lazy about them sometimes. However I do like the old vernacular names as they are often a gateway to some ponderful plant lore.

  38. Anna says:

    I’m bookmarking this post Chloris to return to for a more thorough read when I have more time as I want to read all the comments too 🙂 It has obviously provoked much discussion.

  39. Peter/Outlaw says:

    I very much enjoyed this post, Chloris and agree with you wholeheartedly even though I’m guilty of calling Hippeastrum Amaryllis. I didn’t realize that DNA testing was the reason for so many changes in taxonomy. This makes perfect sense. We do like to cling to the names we learned and really, once one’s practiced something like Ranunculus constantinopolitanus enough times for it to trip off his/her tongue to the amazement of garden visitors, it’s difficult to abandon. To have a conversation about a plant, the proper binomial nomenclature is essential! Having approached Latin from a choral perspective, it was a bit difficult to bend the rules of pronunciation a bit for some botanical names. Fortunately, gardeners are very forgiving if you attempt their language. Now the internet will pronounce plant names for us! Beatus hortorum cultus amici mei (Happy gardening my friend!)

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Peter. I can see how you would be reluctant to give up Ranunculus Constantinopolitanus. In fact I don’ t think you should. You can always tell people that it is a synonym now.
      Beatus hortorum to you too.

  40. Well, Chloris my blogger friend, I think you just separated the goats from the sheep, the wheat from the chaff, and I fall in entirely the wrong categories. I use the Latin name only if that’s how it was introduced to me.
    A big nod to people like you who use the Latin names, for the reasons you mention. I love Latin, and try to figure out what the Latin words are telling me. But none of my neighbours of friends would have a clue if I used those monikers to identify my plants.

    As for old Linneus, he sounds like one very fun guy….

  41. Chloris says:

    Well to be honest I don’ t really know many common names. Most of my gardening friends are as nerdy as I am. And we are all terrible show offs.
    Yes Linneus was a serious scientist but rather naughty too.

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