Vox populi?


How can we reconcile the necessity of using Latin names (so we know what the heck we’re talking about) with the old-fashioned charm and personal associations of common plant names?

The issue has been taken up on this blog before, on Golden Gecko’s, and on mine. But I’m thinking of it again as I peruse the catalogs, ordering annuals and perennials for the 2007 season.

Select Seeds, for example, has Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate, listed in the ks rather than under Polygonum orientale (though it gives this name along with its pronunciation). It also has Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena) and Love-in-a-Puff (Cardiospermum halicabum). The dilemma for me has more to do with the fact that only the first is available as a plant—I fear seeds much more than names—but it seems to me that you have to use both names, one to express the cottage garden lineage of these cultivars and one to correctly identify them in the botanical world.

Though most of us seem to agree that the use of Latin names is preferable, it’s not catching on much in the real world. I wouldn’t mind if all the common names were as cool as Ragged Robin or Queen Anne’s Thimble. Unfortunately, these romantic and fanciful names (and the plants they represent) are just as archaic to most gardeners as multi-syllabic botanical handles.

I found some interesting comments on the subject in a lively thread on Gardenweb:

The common names were created by and for common/casual/the-majority-of gardeners who don’t want to, and don’t intend to learn another language in order to plant a few shrubs, annuals and perennials. These casual gardeners make up the vast majority of the folks who buy plants and gardening stuff.
(Bean Counter)

I once used only Latin names but they seem increasingly useless. The problem is they are less stable than the common ones.
(Ted B)

As for me, it drives me crazy to hear visitors referring to my painstakingly-chosen—and pricey!—varieties of species lilium as daylilies during Garden Walk, and I know the careless American nursery business is at least partially to blame for this. Many in this trade don’t really care whether we know which plants we’re buying as long as they get our money.

On the other hand, I’m longing for the day when I can point to a bed and say “Oh, that’s Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate, Love-in-a-Puff, and Ragged Robin.”

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Or you can use both, as I do.

    I mostly use the common names and only give the Latin ones if there is cause for confusion.

    One of the things I like about being a garden blogger, is to learn more about common plant names that are found all over the world.

    It’s fun and sometimes makes one look at a plant in a whole diffent way.

    I.e. what’s called Love-in-a-mist in some parts of the world, is called Little- Miss-in-Green by the Dutch. Both names make me smile and they are so charming that I’d never want to do without them. Gardening can be fun in so many different ways.

  2. Latin names less stable than common names? I think not! Common names are just that, common! There is a world of difference between all the tickseeds available but if you know the Latin name, you will always get the one you want!

  3. Yeah, this guy (Ted B) is exaggerating, but I do understand that the botanists change the Latin designations more frequently than you might suppose.

    That does not invalidate their reliability for me, but many in the field find it annoying.

  4. Here in a concrete example of how Latin names can be useful: If you look up Polygonum orientale on the web you will find that it is an invasive weed in wetlands, specifically in the east and southeast. If you look up ‘Kiss me over the garden gate’ you will find where you can buy seeds and that Thomas Jefferson was the first to plant it in this country and that it is considered an heirloom plant and a prolific reseeder. All these things maybe true, but I would hope that people would consider the problems that they might cause before they plant it in their garden and they would never know about these problems without the Latin name.


  5. You have to look at this from a much more exciting point of view.

    Namely, that the “latin” names aren’t actually Latin. Binomial names is a more accurate way to describe them. They are something rather distantly related called Neo-Latin. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Latin And that is to say, they are Latin-ish versions of the languages involved with classifications and the people making the classifications.

    For example, take the Butterfly Bush.

    Buddleja (often spelled Buddleia), is a genus of flowering plants. The plant was named after the Reverend Adam Buddle, a botanist and a rector in Essex, England. Buddleia is NOT latin. It is a guy’s name. Take (maybe the most popular) species: davidii. That’s named after the French naturalist Père Armand David. Again, not Latin.

    Buddleja davidii.

    OK. Now each plant has story to tell. Who the hell were Buddle and David? Oh! One guy went to China. Stories!

    And it get’s better the deeper you look. I wrote a little essay about it once… the language of the dirt. http://lakecounty.typepad.com/life_in_lake_county/2006/08/the_language_of.html

    And also, the binomial nomenclature is pretty stable. What is rather unstable are the taxons above the rank of Genus. Family etc. Those change frequently. But no one identifies the Butterfly Bush as FAMILY GENUS SPECIES. GENUS SPECIES CULTIVAR is fine for most of us!

    It doesn’t matter if Buddleja/Buddleia, is Scrophulariaceae, (as it seems to be today), Loganiaceae or in a family of its own, the Buddlejaceae.

    And who says you have to forget the common names? Don’t. Use ’em both!

    I look at the binomial names as a way of adding to the garden experience.

    For example, Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

    Perovski is named for a Turkistani (or Russian) general and statesman named V. A. Perovski (1763-1857). He was involved in the THE RUSSO-CIRCASSIAN WAR about which Circassian, Russian, and other historians have written volumes. It may have been the longest and the cruelest in the annals of history. It raged for over a century and a half between two entirely unequal nations: the gigantic Russian Empire and the little gallant Circassia. Prior to planting this sage, I’d never ever even thought about it.

    Turns out, the war has been referred to as The Russo-Caucasian War and The Caucasian War… and old V A Perovski might never had known that he’d be immortalized in my cottage garden. I think about him every day I’m in my garden.

    And atriplicifolia is a reference to an ancient Latin plant – “with leaves like another plant called Atriplex” – Atriplex is an ancient latin name.

    It is a word picture!

    These aren’t “Latin Names” – they are stories upon stories upon stories. They connect our dirty hands to the entire history of the world!

    Don’t use ’em cause you “have to”… learn ’em cause they make your world bigger and your garden more special!

    I could go on and on. Pristitutes, Cossaks, Wild Animals, Lovers, Kings, Buerocrats having fun, and even Poetry.

    And it get’s better the deeper you look. I wrote a little essay about it once… the language of the dirt. http://lakecounty.typepad.com/life_in_lake_county/2006/08/the_language_of.html

    And if you don’t believe me about the poetry, check out what MY FAVORITE GUY (Linnaeus) did for naming the American Goldfinch. Not a plant. But binomial nomenclature none the less. And beautiful.

    The Anerican Goldfinch Show.


    Sorry so long. I got carried away.

  6. OH… just thought of another good one.


    Genus: Hemerocallis means BEAUTIFUL FOR A DAY Species: fulva (FUL-vuh) means Redish Yellow

    Hemerocallis: from the Greek hemera , “day,” and kallos , “beauty,” thus meaning “beauty for a day,” in reference to the fact that the blooms last only a single day

    For example, At the heart of ephemeral is the ancient Greek word hemera , meaning “day.” (It’s the same word inside the common greeting heard throughout Greece today: Kalemera! or literally, “good day.”) Add to hemera the Greek preposition epi , meaning “upon” or “around,” and you get the source of our own word meaning “transient” or “fleeting,” or in its most literal sense, “lasting but a day.”

    Add Kallos… beautiful.

    (My favorite Kallos word is callipygian: Having a shapely butt. This useful word comes from the Greek kallos , “beautiful” (as in the “beautiful writing” that is calligraphy ), and pyge , the ancient Greek word for “buttocks.”


    The point is that Daylilies are BEAUTIFUL FOR A DAY!

    Hemerocallis! Makes me smile every time I see a daylily.

    And not Latin at all.

  7. I use the term Botanical Name instead of Latin Name as I feel it is more accurate and doesn’t lend itself to accusations of “Spanglish” as County Clerk described it in the comments above. I use a plant’s botanical name, as current as I can find, when I wish for accuracy and specificity. I posted on Cold Climate Gardening on this topic here: http://www.coldclimategardening.com/2006/11/03/pop-quiz/.

    As part of the comments, my wife had some interesting observations that I agree with: “Whether we acknowledge it or not, our society is constantly ‘dumbed-down’ to and using common plant names rather than botanical ones is a good example of the process in action. I used to volunteer and work at a local nursery and customers would wander in asking for plants by their common names. Many times I was stumped by their request and after talking for a bit I understood what they were looking for and would respond with the botanical name. They would often look at me quizzically – as if we were speaking two different languages. Many times I heard how difficult it is to pronounce the Latin name or remember it, it being much easier to remember the common name. If one thinks about it, botanical names give the reader so much more knowledge about the plant than the common name.”

    But I’m not such a plant snob that I don’t enjoy and use many plants’ common names, maple, ash, dogwood, oak, being just a few. Mariposa lily sounds better than Calochortus and the Spanish word for butterfly is Mariposa, an apt description of the intricate patterns and overlays of color within the flowers. I will always say Meadow Foam instead of Limnanthes douglasii as it turns a border into a frothy mass of color in spring. I have never seen a Tinker’s Penny but I’ve always liked the name. But I always use Hemerocallis, Monarda, Echinacea, and Rudbeckia.

    One of the troubling aspects of common names is they no longer originate from common usage and are manufactured as brand names, often by large growers and brokers. It is part of the marketing of plants, especially for new and unfamiliar plants, to try and make the plant “friendlier” and more attractive to the customer.

    I share your frustration when visitors to a garden misidentify plants. But it is also an opportunity to help them. Signage and labels could go a long way towards that. Most of the people visiting your garden like plants and may appreciate enhancing their knowledge of what they are seeing.

  8. Clerk: I’m overwhelmed. Thank you!

    Wendy: Nothing is invasive in my garden. “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate” is the phrase that should posted at my garden gate.

    Craig–I have noticed that many people seem sort of disbelieving when I correct them on the name of a plant–I try to do it nicely–but these are longheld assumptions that are being challenged. Like ants and peonies.

  9. How ironic, while trying to defend the use of scientific jargon. I used a different sort of jargon to create confusion. I didn’t mean to imply that it would invade your garden and take over there, endangering your other garden plants. I don’t actually know anything about that.

    I was trying to point out that this particular plant is infamous for escaping from peoples gardens and invading wild areas, particularly wetlands (where I do my research). Species that are “invasive” in this way can really create problems for native species.

    Sorry to have created confusion. Lesson learned, common words like “invasive” are like common names, they mean different things to different people.


  10. I’ve always wished for a good glossary of botanical plant names — where you could at least get a literal translation of the two words if not the story of the generals, scientists or others and their full story. Anyone know any good sources?

    I admit to having problems with names. It takes me a couple of introductions before I pin down a person’s name, sometimes longer with plants. I’m filled with dread as spring returns and old friends make appearances and I’ve forgotten their names. Knowing the origin of their names would definitely help me to fix them in my mind.

    I’ll also admit to being lazy and remembering plants only by their first (or depending on how you look at it last) names. Well genus, to be specific. That’s a verbascum, that’s a heuchera, etc.

    Many plants I learned first by there botanical names, and sometimes I’m embarassed that I can’t remember their common ones. For the most part, I don’t think the botanical names are any harder to remember — and again, would be easier to remember if we knew the stories or meaning behind them, instead of memorizing meaningless syllables.

  11. Wendy,

    Like Michele says, it’s all about the terroir. I’m in an urban environment, where deadheading is a necessity and seeds seldom, if ever, escape to become invasive.

    But that’s not true for many other gardeners in Western New York. I am sure those in our rural and even suburban areas should consider invasiveness.

    I wish.

  12. Ellis,

    Let me reccomend “Dave’s Garden” – an online gardening community-resource-whatever. They have user maintained “plant files” with lots of info. Each has link to the Dave’s Garden Botany Dictionary or “Botanary.”

    For example, your verbascum (one of them anyway) is here:

    The Botanary links on that page tell us:

    Meaning: Corruption of the Latin barbascum, meaning with a beard

    Now, the

    Verbascum thapsus is “with a beard” and “from Sicily”


    So… to me, Verbascum thapsus in MY garden will forever be a “Bearded Sicilian”

    Meaning: Of or from Sicily.


    I think it is free. I paid a little something for premium something but I’m not sure what that got me. Mostly, I just wanted to support the site.

    You can also put your plant journal online… very easily.

  13. A man who really loves words, I think the Clerk has this topic covered. What else is there to add?

    As a regular in Dave’s Garden plant ID forum I will say a plant is not considered identified and solved until the right Botanical Binomial Nomenclature name for it is given and agreed upon.

  14. Oh, god, guess I’ll have to pay up and join the Davesgardenites. Don’t want to miss out on these nomenclature discussions.

  15. CC: Thanks for the tip. I’m actually a Dave’s Garden member, though I hadn’t explored that part of the site. That’s exactly what I’m looking for. Now, to make time to explore all the meaning of the names of all the plants I grow.

  16. What a joy it’s been to read the original post and this long comment thread -you all write so well and with so much passion!

    My vote is also for more information, not less. Choosing one type of name over the other would give us less of the beauty, accuracy and history that can be conveyed when twinning common and botanic names.

    You’d better know more than the common name if you move from one area of the country to another- the same name may refer to quite different plants.
    For example , if a national advice column talks about a ‘Japanese yew’, they’re probably thinking of Taxus, but in the South, Japanese yew is Podocarpus.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  17. I have a web page with a few specific epithets and their meanings here:

    I used several sources for my entries and found a number of them at the Dictionary of Botanical Epithets http://www.winternet.com/%7Echuckg/dictionary.html

    Annie in Austin:
    I also lived where Podocarpus was called Yew but it was always linked with Pine to make Yew Pine. Doubly confusing.

    It is really heartening to read so many responses in favor of more knowledge. Yeah!

  18. Going off on a tangent, I ordered the Kiss-me-over-the-garden-Kate seed about 5 years ago, and I can tell you, YOU NEED HAVE NO FEAR OF SEED: Kiss-me-over-the-garden-Kate is a prolific and dependable self-sower, easily germinating year after year in my Kansas garden. (Also easily pulled out to control its spread.)
    May I quote Elizabeth Buchan? In her fiction book, “Consider the Lily”, one of her characters says, “I l ike using the proper names: They pin down the chaos of things.”

  19. I rely completely on the botanical names. I’m from Sweden, and I read a lot of gardening blogs and gardening sites in English, and sometimes German. My English is reasonably fluent, and I can get by on my German, but I’m not familiar with more than a fraction of the common plant names, and local, regional and national differences don’t make things any easier; without the botanical names, I’d be completely lost!

    That’s the really great thing about them, I think – they’re an international language. Colloquial names are interesting, and I try to learn as many of them as possible, but it’s hard to keep track and they do tend to vary a lot. Using both is the best, of course, but give the choice of either, not both, I’d definitely go for the botanical name.

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