What’s in a Name? Part the First

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

This post is now available at Hayefield:


Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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catmint February 21, 2009, 8:19 am

thank you for this post. I enjoyed the info about botanical names, and especially enjoyed the quirky comments from Chiltern, so i must be a geek too. Cheers, Catmint

Welcome, catmint! I’m glad you appreciated the Chiltern brilliance too.

Les February 21, 2009, 8:58 am

Always an interesting discussion. I am intrigued by the plants that are named after particular persons. Did the namer honor a fellow plantsperson, a spouse or did they build their ego and name it for theirself. There has been alot of talk in the trade about whether latin names intimidate 20-30 somethings while they shop. Where I work we make sure that the common name is the one spotted first, but all tags and informational signs have the botanical name right under or next to the common. I don’t trust companies that will not use botanical names at all.

Yep, it’s a challenge to try to hit all levels, providing enough information for those who care but not so much to overwhelm those who just want something pretty for their yard.

And I agree about the people-named plants. Each is a whole story in itself.

gail February 21, 2009, 9:23 am

A fun post Nan and Chiltern is a treasure! I love plant names…botanical and common. How could one not, with names like this~~Kiss Me Over The Garden Gate (Persicaria orientalis) or Love-Lies-Bleeding, Tassel Flower (Amaranthus caudatus)….gail

You bet, Gail – those are some of my favorites too.

Frances February 21, 2009, 9:23 am

Hi Nan, you lost me with the soil names, HA, but the plant names are beloved. A book of gardener’s latin, a gift from a dear friend, makes sense of the whole thing, must reading for serious gardener’s who want to know what they are saying in those names. I have to laugh at the Prunella too, just shows even Linnaeus was human. BTW, we have that plant here and absolutely love it. It will grow where hardly nothing else will, the old gravel driveway. I love the flowers, evergreen foliage and ease of care, none! Chiltern’s skinny catalog is a treaure.

Hah – “ease of care”: isn’t that the definition of a weed? Well, you’re not alone in liking the prunella; I have seen some for sale that look interesting and almost tempting enough to try. But the species is a nuisance for me here, and the boys don’t like it in their pasture, either.

Natalie February 21, 2009, 9:35 am

BTW – your link to Chiltern Seeds is broken.

Interesting stuff. I’m always on the lookout for learning where the scientific names come from.

Yes, sorry about that. It’s fixed now.

Barbara February 21, 2009, 9:52 am

Hi Nan! Thanks for the post on nomenclature. I love plant names and am really frustrated by nurseries that don’t use them and when I loose a tag in my own garden before I’ve learned a plant’s correct name! I’m happy to say I left all my unnamed plants in Pennsylvania (I had a dog who loved playing with those little white toys I stuck everywhere in the garden). I’m trying hard to keep track of everything down here in Maryland! BTW, your post prompted me to check on my Antirrhinum braun-blanquetii. It’s still where I planted it and has been evergreen this winter! Barbara

Oh, yes – I forgot to mention that in the January Design Workshop: the value of plant labels as dog toys.

Thanks for the update on your Antirrhinum – that’s great news!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter February 21, 2009, 1:29 pm

I love etymology in general, and orgin of plant names in particular. Thanks for the link, I’ll have to check it.

Oh, do – you’ll love it!

Greenfingers February 21, 2009, 9:56 pm

Better yet, have a paper and pen and write the common name and its taxonomy name so that you have a ready reference that is handy for you. This works for me especially when I’m buying at the store for some seeds or when I’m having a conversation with a fellow gardener as well. Kinda weird though but it works all the time. God bless.

Not weird, Greenfingers! A “cheat sheet” can be very handy. One problem, though, is customers using uncommon common names. My mom, for instance, knows some botanical names, but she uses only common names to tease me. And the names she uses are those she and her siblings made up as kids to describe where they saw the plants growing. So I’ve learned that, in her world, “graveyard plant” refers to upright sedums and “coal-bucket plants” are portulacas. Doesn’t help me much in the real world, though.

jodi (bloomingwriter) February 21, 2009, 11:05 pm

Yay, I’m so glad for this post. Words fascinate me, obviously, or I wouldn’t be a writer, and nomenclature and its history delights me even when I fall over some of the names.

Glad you enjoyed it, Jodi. A side benefit of working on this series of posts has been (I hope, anyway) an improvement in my spelling of some botanical names. I’m finding that, as I learn or re-learn the meanings of various suffixes and prefixes, it’s easier to remember how they fit together.

eliz February 22, 2009, 7:04 pm

I love the latin names and regret that even horticulturalists speaking to audiences dominated by professionals often use confusing common names (that could easily refer to other plants).

This just happened at an otherwise informative and enjoyable native plant seminar I attended in Ithaca.

I sympathize, Elizabeth. But if I were standing in front of a group, I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to attempt pronouncing botanical names either!

Saxon Holt February 23, 2009, 12:14 pm

Great, fun and informative post Nan ! If you want to know the origins of some cultivar names there is a nice little Timber Press book called “Legends in the Garden – Who in the World is Nellie Stevens”” (by Armitage and Copeland, 2001) that tells stories of cultivars like Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ – from the town of Anna, Illinois.
Didn’t know about the Chiltern catalogue. – Saxon

Thanks, Saxon. You’re right: cultivar names are yet a whole *other* world of fun.

LINDA from EACH LITTLE WORLD February 26, 2009, 11:10 am

Great post! One of the things I always think about with botanical names, is that many of us have other interests with specific language that we all learn and just take for granted. Think computers (!), sewing or cooking measurements or ceramics and kilns and cones etc. The young crowd is hip and into all those things so why not plant names, too?

As for the soil, that was fascinating. I know the only two names I need to know: Antigo Silt Loam (the official state soil of Wisconsin) and black earth, the soil around Black Earth, WI where a seed thrown out the window will sprout. A Spring drive through the area will make you drool at the richness of the fields.

Are you sitting down, Linda? ‘Cause taxonomically, your state soil is a Haplic Glossudalf. That’s a really cool name! But I wouldn’t blame you for sticking with Antigo silt loam.

healingmagichands November 8, 2009, 8:47 am

It is clear to me that I have not surfed around this site enough! Thank you for putting the link to this post in your new Plant Names post.

I now have another book on my must have list!

Just a little side note to the “common versus latin” names debate. In my world, I want to use the name that is going to get me the plant I actually want, especially when I have seen it in a botanical garden or in someone’s post. That means the botanical name will be more useful, in the vast majority of cases. This is also why I have a certain amount of embarrassment that I don’t actually know all the names of every plant I have on this place.

However, I will just say that in this area, when I go to the nursery (and there is only one actual nursery — the “Plant sections” of Walmart and Lowe’s do not count as nurseries in MY opinion — I do not expect the workers there to know a darned thing about the plant materials they are tending. I once went to this nursery in search of a Penstemon. I did not have a particular variety in mind, I just thought I would like some sort of that plant around, see how the family did in a certain spot. After spending a certain amount of time looking through the stock of perennial plants, I had not located a single Penstemon. One of the attendants was in the area watering pots, and she finally deigned to notice the fact that there was an actual customer looking for something. So she inquired as to whether she could help me. I asked her “Do you have any Penstemons here?” The look I got told me that this person had no clue as to what that was, and she sort of desultorily looked about, and finally told me “No, I don’t think I’ve seen any of that. What is it?” So I tried to describe what the plant might look like. Anyway, to make a long story short, I came across a group of about five pots of a Penstemon variety. But the plant tag was labeled as “Monkey flower” with the latin name in small letters lower down. When I drew her attention to this, so that she would know that she had penstemon in her care, it was obvious that in her world, the latin name was extraneous information. Not surprisingly, the people who owned that nursery are now not in business any longer. Personally, I think that if you work with plants you should care enough to know all their names and not just have your body occupying space at your workplace so you can draw a paycheck.

Monkey flower as a common name for Penstemon? That’s a new one to me! I totally get your feelings about the situation. I usually experience it in the reverse: customers come in with only a common name, and they get testy when I ask them questions to try to figure out what they want. One got annoyed when she asked for “ice plant” and it took me a while to work out that she really wanted Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’. Another was very peeved when she asked for “mint” and I showed her peppermint, spearmint, and pineapple mint, No, she wanted just plain “mint” and left in a huff. Sigh.

salix November 17, 2009, 9:45 pm

Hi Nan
Got here from your recent posting about botanical names.
Just a funny thing: What’s in a name? Reading your photo note at the end of your post the name John Kirkegaard stands out to me as a common Danish name and of course I go on a search. He was the assistant to the director at the Royal Botanical Garden in Copenhagen before he was involved in American forestry and botanical work. For some – maybe most – other readers, it’s just a name.

Hey, how interesting! I’ll have to pull that book off the shelf and read it again to become more familiar with his work.

Country Mouse November 18, 2009, 2:42 pm

The more plant names I understand, the less blurry the garden looks. A patch of greenish gray (say) becomes a friend with a personality I know.

Artemisia – as an example – from Artemis, goddess of (among other things) herbal healers, and artemesia is apparently good for what ails you. AKA mugwort, cronewort, and wormwood – I just found all that out from http://www.bellaonline.com/ArticlesP/art39826.asp (all subject to verification of course).

Thanks for sharing that, CM! Here’s another good one from mythology: Tillandsia caput-medusae (Medusa’s head), a wild-looking epiphytic bromeliad.

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