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A Rose Is a Rose Is a `Genus Rosa'

Tony Lord makes sure that, when it comes to naming plants, gardeners around the world speak the same language

By Christopher AndreaeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 1991


POET T.S. Eliot may have thought that ``the naming of cats is a difficult matter.'' But it's nothing compared to the naming of plants. All those complicated Latin names for gardeners to contend with, as if growing them wasn't tricky enough! Things like Myriophyllum proserpinacoides or Zantedeschia albomaculata - when for most of us ``Cyclamen'' or ``Chrysanthemum'' is quite complex enough. Not only that, but they keep changing the names. Chrysanthemum no longer exists - officially. It's been split every which way. Tony Lord, British plant-names wizard, comments: ``Botanists are either `splitters' or `lumpers.' It's the splitters who've got to work on Chrysanthemums.''

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They have divided them into different genera, like Tanacetum, Leucanthemum, and Argyranthemum. The ones most people know in flower shops are now officially Dendranthema. Though try asking at your local florist for a Dendranthema! I did. The owner was baffled.

``Really, in the last few years gardeners have been ... inundated with name changes,'' says Lord by telephone from his home in Cheltenham, England. ``It's actually quite hard to keep up with name changes around the world.

``The age of the computer has helped - but also in a way it has released floodgates of information held back for donkey's years.'' He adds with a chuckle: ``Gardeners are always moaning at me! But it's not my fault at all - I don't do it; I just pass on the message.''

Tony Lord edits - he is ``horticultural consultant'' - for many of the finest gardening books originating in the United Kingdom, including the highly useful ``The Plant Finder,'' which lists which plants are available where in the UK. Co-compiler Chris Philip comments: ``Tony Lord can spot a spelling mistake in a Latin name at a hundred paces.''

``He's absolutely marvelous - so reliable,'' says Erica Hunningher, editorial director of Frances Lincoln Ltd., a London publisher. She greatly prizes his expertise: ``I don't think we could begin to produce really authoritative books without him.'' One such current book is ``The Art of Planting'' by Rosemary Verey (published in the United States by Little, Brown & Co.): It's not only beautiful, and written by a greatly admired gardener, but - thanks to Lord - it's accurate.

``The authors,'' Lord says ``don't stop to check names - which is quite right. It's a waste of their time, frankly. However good their knowledge, there will always be quirky instances I know to be wrong in some way.''

Why do plant names get changed? Lord answers: ``In some cases, botanists find one name has priority. The oldest name should be used.''

Oldest, according to whom? ``According to the `Code of Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants,''' Lord replies. This respected authority is published in Utrecht, The Netherlands. ``It sets out all the rules,'' says Lord. ``Various things are not allowed. For example, for a cultivar name [see accompanying story], you can't use a Latin word. And you've got to avoid giving, say, two Fuchsias the same cultivar name - though, in fact, that happens quite a lot. There are so many of them.''