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.''
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.''
That's true: a Fuchsia grower told me that his niece had wanted him to name a new cultivar he'd produced ``Trisha'' after her. He couldn't, he said: There were already two called ``Trisha.'' The confusion caused by such naming practices is precisely why rules and accuracy are valued by people of Lord's ilk - members, as he is, of the Horticultural Taxonomy Group based in England.
Although he is meticulous, he is also philosophical: ``I'm sure people will still call them `Chrysanthemums,''' he says, ``just as people still call Pelargoniums, `Geraniums.' I don't think that's the end of the world.'' But books like ``The Plant Finder'' must get it right, ``otherwise you'd get in a bit of a mess.''
In fact, most naming problems occur not so much with species or genera, but with cultivar names - though sometimes ``two species thought to be distinct are actually found to integrate. Example - Betula jacquemontii and Betula utilis.'' These are now acknowledged to be the same species of Himalayan birch. Also, new species are still discovered by plant-hunting expeditions in places not previously well explored - parts of China, for example.
But it is when humans get going - developing hundreds of cultivars of any given species - that nomenclature havoc can break loose. Lord says Bougainvilleas are a problem area just now: ``Suddenly we've got lots and lots of them,'' he says. ``I'm sure that a lot of the names are false - names that people have slapped on because they don't know what the thing really is.''
It seems that gardeners can be remarkably slap-happy in such ways. ``Gardeners are given a cutting from somewhere or other and want to call it something. And whatever they call it, the name tends to stick.''
What does help Lord to sort things out is the increase of specialty garden books, particularly ones dealing with a single genus - rosa, clematis, hosta. ``Many more such books come out now than in the '60s and '70s.'' He also has considerable respect for the ``Index Hortensis'' by Piers Trehane (the first of two volumes was recently published).
But there are, he says, always gray areas. And botanists don't always agree. Debates are currently afoot about the common ``bluebell.'' Should it be Hyacinthoides, or Scilla, or Endymion? (He opts for the first.) But, he adds, ``whichever course you follow you rub someone the wrong way.''
Some things are, however, firmly agreed upon. The wild Cyclamen, for instance, Cyclamen hederifolium, is definitely to be called that - though you still see packets of seed marked neapolitanum. It's a simple question of historical priority: This charming flower once had both names because the person who named it neapolitanum in 1813 didn't know that someone else had named it hederifolium in 1789.
Lord does think that the time may come when neapolitanum will, even in colloquial usage, be forgotten. After all, these tags do mean something, so what they signify ought to be right. This particular cyclamen grows all over the Mediterranean area, not just near Naples, as neapolitanum suggests.
On the other hand, its leaves are undeniably ivy shaped - which is what hererifolium clearly states - for those, that is, who can read Latin at a hundred paces.