Let’s call the whole thing off


From contributing Ranter Allan Armitage:

I wrote this a number of years ago after I discovered gardeners, even students, were intimidated when trying to give scientific names. They said they felt silly especially if they were with other gardeners whom they were sure “knew everything” and might correct their pronunciation. I talked a little about scientific and common names a few rants ago, but now that everyone wants to talk plant latin and plant greek, here is the next barrier to overcome.

Excerpted from Herbaceous Perennials Plants 3rd ed: Most people like to pronounce names with some degree of confidence. Scientific names can be intimidating and often we will not say them for fear of sounding ignorant. Like anything else, pronunciation is something that one feels confident with only with continued use. If scientific names are seldom part of one’s gardening vocabulary, we will always stumble and stutter. I have provided pronunciation guides for most genera and specific epithets in my books, as “correct” as I thought possible, but with a definite Armitage bias as well. And I often get skewered by linguists and editors.


However, let’s get real. Does a person in Germany pronounce a genus like a person in Ireland, or Holland? Of course not. Does it really matter if paniculata is pronounced (pa-nik-ew-lah’ ta) or (pa-nik-ew-lay’ ta)? I prefer to pronounce Stokesia as (stokes’ ee-a), in recognition of Dr. John Stokes, for whom the genus was named. However (stow-keys’ ee-a) is commonly used and equally understood. I read comments in Internet articles and can even hear proper botanical etiquette through my speakers that someone has posted. They are all very well done, and most differ with each other.


In teaching my students and talking with growers, landscapers and gardeners, I had to come up with an easy rule. So, here is the Armitage Method for Plant Pronunciation. “Get the syllables in the right order, then fire away.”

Don’t worry about sounding silly, it is only the garden snob who continually tries to correct you. And who needs snobs in a garden?

I have a question for Rant readers. How do you pronounce clematis? I have been corrected on this a number of times, and I’d love to know how others say it.—Elizabeth

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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. Clem a tis, although I can’t see what’s wrong with pronouncing it Clem May Tis either.

    As for vowel sounds, that had me howling with laughter, I am an English, English speaker – how do you pronounce Tomato?


  2. Cluh-MAT-iss. Isn’t it?

    I heartily endorse this rant. I’m not so much interested in whether the customers know the proper name as whether they know an unambiguous name, and if they’ve gone to the trouble to get the Latin, we can meet them halfway on the pronounciation. It’s not like I pronounce them all properly, either. (Calathea has taken me a while, and I may never feel entirely comfortable with Kalanchoe.)

  3. I love that! “Get the syllables in the right order, then fire away!” That is perfect.

    I think everyone is intimidated by pronunciation. Even the experts stumble sometimes.

    I have always said (klem-a-tis) with the emphasis on the “klem-a”.

    You probably already saw it, but Fine Gardening has a pronunciation guide here:


    I am sure there are others. Anyone know of other on-line pronunciation guides?

  4. I’m one of those who, as a beginner, accented the second syllable of clematis – til I got corrected. Now I’m obediently in the CLEMatis camp, but no way would I ever correct someone. Who gives a damn?
    What I hear mispronounced most often is liriope. Really, unless you’ve heard this you’d NEVER guess it’s 4 syllables.
    And Allan, I also love your rule, which if our still-president had ever used might have spared us nuke-u-lar.

  5. Hear, hear. The important thing is to figure out a pronunciation scheme that will help you remember the names, and to be just consistent enough that we can all understand each other–beyond that, who cares?

  6. HOORAY!!! I am about to start the Master Gardener course this January and this is the one area that has been holding me back, making me nervous and doubting my abilities. I will now hold my head high and “fire away”!

  7. I actually write the pronunciation guide in Fine Gardening and voice the pronunciations on the FG website, and I’m sometimes confused. After 4 years of high school Latin, you’d think I’d get it. I hope Mr. Bezy, my Latin teacher, isn’t reading this… My strategy is to give a pronunciation that conforms to the rules if I can, but more importantly one that would most likely be recognized if you said it out loud in a nursery. That’s what it’s all about–making sure you’re talking about the right plant, not impressing your gardening friends. That said, I am strongly in the CLEM-ah-tis camp, since I think clem-AT-is sounds like a kind of VD.

  8. “clem-A-tis” — Only because I think “CLEM-a-tis” sounds pretentious.

    …unless you’re in England, then “Clem’-a-tis” sounds normal, and “clem-a’-tis” sounds like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Huechera is another one that always got to me. It’s “Hewk’ er-a” not “Hooch-ear’ a.”

    One I can’t bring myself to use in the way it was intended is Forsythia. It’s named after botanist William Forsyth. So technically, to honor the namesake it is “For-sithe’ i-a,” not “For-sith’ i-a” Now THAT would sound pretentious.

  9. When I’m talking about clematis, I’m generally raving about sweet autumn clematis–and that settles the pronunciation for me.

    Sweet autumn CLEM-eh-tis. The other way sounds silly with autumn in front of it.

    Other than that, I generally make an ass of myself whenever I attempt any Latin.

  10. I say “Clem-AH-tis”, but my father in law says “Clem-AY-tis”, and in his thick Georgia accent it makes me giggle.

    And I do agree with Andrew that “CLEM-a-tis” sounds a little snooty—but more than that, awkward.

    I’ve never heard anyone who speaks American English pronounce (in their genuine everyday accent) “Tomato” any other way besides “Tuh-MAY-toe”.

  11. My pronunciation rule is, “Just say it with authority”.

    Throw in a southern accent and a mild case of dyslexia and you can imagine I have my own unique way of saying the scientific botanical names of many plants.

    So go ahead, correct me.

  12. Like Humpty Dumpty in “Through the looking glass” I decided that if I paid my words “overtime” they would mean what I want, even if pronounced with a dyslectic Alaskan accent… Even now I tell all my customers to pronounce botanical Latin however they want to, it is “made up” with both Latin and Greek as base and every language since “Latinized” and thrown in… if you stop and think about the “rules” you realize how stupid and out of date they really are, (Mr. Bybee please don’t think I hated your Biology Latin Class! You were the best teacher I ever had!).

    I remember having a very spirited debate with Jeff Lowensfels years ago on the “correct” way to pronounce Fuchsia…. It was then I decided that language, any language, even Classification Latin was bound by the rule of language evolution, common usage and regional pronunciations. Jeff may be right that Fuchsia has a K sound, but no one else I knew in the nursery trade in Alaska used that pronunciation, so in the end we were both right, after all we both knew which plant we were talking about, and that is what language is for.

  13. OK, I studied Latin in school and I’m from Europe, so I probably sound pretentious to most of the rant readers. I hope you’ll forgive me if I continue to pronounce the plant names as I was taught.

    And no, I’ve never ever corrected anybody’s pronounciation.

  14. I always said cle-mat-is until I saw a Martha Stewart show where she said clem-a-tis. Another one I was mispronouncing was ipomea.

  15. I had a college botany professor whose philosophy was that the entire purpose of botanical latin was for people all over the world to be able to communicate, so as long as your pronunciation got your message across, you were doing fine. That pretty much ended my uneasiness about proununciation as this was a wise man in many ways.

    I grew up in the deep south, where almost everyone had LEER-ee-ope growing in their yards, separating the lawn from the flower beds. Out in California, it’s rarely used, at least by water conscious gardeners, but it is commonly referred to in the nursery industry as Lir-EYE-o-pee. I made the switch, mainly cos it’s more fun to say that way.

    As far as fuchsia having a “k” sound, I never could remember whether which came first, the “s” or the “c” until I was told that the “c” comes first, just like the word F***. I don’t pronounce it that way, but I always mutter it under my breath if I’m having to write it!!

    I agree about Kalanchoe. I say it both ways, depending on my mood.

    One thing that irritates me about the misuse of botanical names is when someone comes into the nursery asking for a plant by the species name, without knowing the genus. The best example is the person who asks for a Japonica. This has happened more than once. We don’t get very far unless they can describe the plant in detail.

  16. Fuschia is another odd one. It’s named after German botanist Leonhart Fuchs (fewks). So, in a perfect world it would be pronounced fewks’ i-a. But I’m sure that everyone outside of the Fuchs family says it as few’ shia.

  17. Bah. I took Latin in school. And Botany. Botanical Latin is made up. So how can we be picky with pronunciation? How about blue oak – Quercus douglasii. They took David Douglas’s last name and stuck a posessive ending onto it. That doesn’t make it Latin, that makes it Botanical Latin. We need to learn to deal with it. People need to calm down. My Pig Latin pronunciation is pretty bad too. It just needs to get the message across.

    And I say Clem-AT-iss.

  18. With regards to this advice: “Get the syllables in the right order, then fire away.”

    Didn’t work so well when I first started asking about the Cotton Easter bushes I wanted to plant out front…

  19. I am a real fan of “…see this plant right here?”

    I don’t know a soul who uses a latin name (knowingly) in a conversation about plants…I suppose it is important in botany and in writing about horticulture…perhaps that is why the animal kingdom is still hogging all the attention and resources vs. the plant kingdom.

  20. Yeah, I’m with you on the Cotton Easters. One of the first gardener’s mistakes, I think!

    My clients get all covered with embarrassment when they are trying to say plant words. I try to reassure them that the whole point of botanical names is that we can communicate clearly and not get muddled as to which Mock Orange they mean, so if I can figure out which plant they’re referring to, then they’ve been a roaring success.

  21. I said clem-AT-is until our garden designer corrected me. Then when I said CLEM-a-tis in front of a neighbor, who happens to work at the best local nursery, he corrected me back the other way. He also gave me a lecture (a friendly one) on the origin of the word which he asserted is German (and he’s German), so therefore he must be right. Truth be told, I took 3 years of German in high school and minored in it in college, and I don’t remember anything that sounded remotely like either CLEM-a-tis or clem-AT-is. So now, when I am around the designer, I say it her way and when I’m around the nursery man, I say it his way. And I don’t care as long as the darn things bloom. 🙂

  22. I laughed out loud when ChristopherM mentioned the Cotton Easter. Cotton Easter featured in one of my more embarrassing forays into horticulture – way back when.

  23. I often get corrected on latin pronunciations but at least the people know what I’m talking about. If I used the Timber Press book, ‘Dictionary Of Plant Names’ for pronunciation I might be misunderstood. How about ke-drus for cedrus, fuks-ee-a for fuchsia, and vie-ge-la for weigela?

  24. KLEM-i-tiss is how the garden nazis around here say it. Like herb instaead of erb etc.

    But remember a roz, iz a rows, iz a rose………….

    SHAYK-speer (?)

    Thee TROLL

  25. I tend to pronounce it CLEM-muh-tis. The m wants to carry over to the next syllable. I do remember pronouncing it cle-MAT-tis many years ago and was corrected a few times until I finally changed how I pronounce it. I remember being a newbie and struggling with the names, but at least I kept trying until I got it right. Not that I get them all correct even now.

    Syllables in the right order, I have to remember that one!

  26. I know another version of the poem:

    Just because I grow on a lattice, don’t call me clematis.
    Hoi Palloi, Mr. Webster won’t cease to hiss until you call it clematis.

    The Hoi Palloi is Greek

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