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New gardeners inevitably ask: Why does the horticultural world insist upon inflicting an ersatz Latin upon us? Who wants to learn how to enunciate Hakonechloa? 

I must confess it took practice before Hakonechloa tripped merrily from my lips. It took me equally as long to discover that Japanese forest grass (its common name) does not fare well in the Carolina Piedmont, leaving me able to pronounce a plant I cannot grow. However, the question remains: Why do experienced gardeners use the Latin name of a plant rather than the common name?

To answer this question we have to go back to the 18th century and Carl Linnaeus, who developed the system of plant classification that we still use. At that time botanists were naming plants with long Latin descriptions, a laborious practice. Seeking to simplify things, Linnaeus used the first name to indicate the genus and the second name to identify the species. Hence Rosa banksiae became the name for the Chinese species rose, the Lady Banks rose.

Ah, still you insist that the common name is easier to remember. My reply is to consider this: The common name “coneflower” may refer to members of the Echinacea, Dracopis, Rudbeckia, or Ratibida genera. In the Echinacea genus alone there are nine coneflower species. Consequently it is far more efficient to search for Echinacea purpurea than it is to plow through dubious lists of coneflowers.

To make matters even more complicated, common names vary from region to region and can change over time. Often the meaning of the common names has been lost, making little sense in relation to the plant. Many of us are familiar with Yucca but would be hard pressed to identify “Adam’s Needle.” Both “Alumroot” and “Coral Bells” are common names for Heuchera, but neither name identifies the species. Most Heuchera bear colors that are not coral and they certainly are not bell-like in shape. “Alumroot” possibly refers to silver-colored leafed Heuchera – but who knows?

Likewise, “Solomon’s Seal” does not necessarily refer to Polygonatum, as it can indicate a plant in the Disporopsis genus. We all know daisies when we see them, but do you have any idea how many daisies there are? Daisies, which comprise 10 percent of all the world’s flowers, may be Shasta daisies, African daisies, Gerber daisies, Nippon daisies – and the list goes on and on. Daisies do not even have to be white. Using the proper Latin name quickly identifies the particular daisy in question. Otherwise, it's like trying to find a daisy in a haystack.

The horrid little secret in the world of botany is that botanists can take a sadistic pleasure in changing the proper Latin names. Several years ago botanists decided to split up the Aster genus by placing an awful lot of former asters in the unpronounceable Symphyotrichum genus. At this point even Tony Avent, plant guru par excellence, rebelled and kept asters with asters. Go to the Plant Delights website, type in Symphyotrichum and you’ll see four entries – all of which Tony calls Aster.

Are you ready to throw up your hands in disgust? Wait, there's more: Botanists can also refuse to make up their minds. Originally Leucanthemum x superbum “Becky” was a Chrysanthemum. Then botanists placed it in the Leucanthemum genus, but at last count “Becky” has reverted back to being a Chrysanthemum. This switching back and forth didn’t create havoc simply because Leucanthemum was relatively pronounceable. Likewise, when Stipa tenuissima became Nasella tenuissima, the transition was relatively easy as the new name was easy to articulate.

The current Eupatorium situation may cause you to stop reading and turn off your computer. Our native Joe Pye weeds – there's more than one – always resided in the Eupatorium genus, a name that takes some practice to enunciate. Then botanists split up Eupatorium into Eutrochium, Conoclinium and Ageratina with a couple of wildflowers remaining in Eupatorium. Most of the Joe Pye weeds ended up in Eutrochium. The only way to get the Joe Pye weed you want is to use its proper Latin name. This is torture, right? I'm suddenly feeling old and pondering whether my Joe Pye weed days are over.

This renaming has gone on forever. Elizabeth Lawrence, the first female landscape architect to graduate from North Carolina State University, wrote extensively about her gardens in Raleigh and Charlotte during the 1950s and 1960s. However, the list of names she uses – good Latin names – is enough to give the reader a headache as almost all of the names have changed. In other words, Linnaeus’ system continues to be refined – and further refined ad nauseum.

However, there is hope. The more contact you have with the Latin names, the more familiar they become. You’ll learn that “ch” has a hard k sound, that names ending in “ii” are pronounced ē ī, and many of the species' names are quite descriptive with obvious meaning, such as “multiflora,” “japonica,” or “alba.” 

Latin names in the 18th and 19th centuries frequently included the name of the plant explorer or the name of a person it was dedicated to. Thus Franklinia alatamaha is a tree dedicated to Benjamin Franklin that the famous Bartram brothers discovered in the Alatamaha River Valley. Rosa roxburghii is a species rose presumably named after a Mr. Roxburgh, who probably came across it in China and sent samples back to the Western world. Likewise, Corylus avellana “Contorta,” aka Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, is easy to diagram: Corylus is the name Linnaeus gave to the hazel genus, avellana describes the Italian town of Avella where hazelnuts grow wild, and “Contorta” refers to the corkscrew shape of the branches. Okay, you have to memorize Corylus and avellana, but once you have seen its twisted branches, the “Contorta” part makes sense.

A friend of mine who taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, swears that he knew a botanist who named a plant Landroveriansis in honor of his Land Rover, but, alas, I’ve failed to substantiate this wonderful flight of fancy. What I can say is that with practice you’ll not only be able to pronounce Hakonechloa, but if you’re lucky you might even be able to grow it.

Kit Flynn

Kit Flynn is a Master Gardener. She has written about her gardening experiences for the past 10 years.

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