Do botanical names really matter in gardening?

If I could change my early experience in gardening, one thing I'd do is learn botanical (Latin) names for plants. They really do make a difference.

Courtesy of Helen Yoest
Can you pronounce the name of this plant? Stachyurus praecox ‘Issai' is quite a mouthful. The plant's common name is golden spike tail, which is much easier to say. But knowing the botanical name matters, too.

On lazy winter evenings, when I’m nodding off with a favorite gardening magazine or book, I have a reccurring dream. In my dream, I’m walking down the garden path and I find a manifold sitting on a pedestal with three do-over buttons.

In my dream, I get a chance to make three things in my gardening life right. Each button is labeled, but I know them by heart: Botanical Latin, Journal, and Read More. The dream is always the same and I wake up right before I mash the first button.

If I could mash the first do-over button for my gardening life, I would start by taking botanical Latin more seriously.

Botanical names sounded uppity

Early on, I can remember friends trying to roll their tongue around incomprehensible words like Stachyurus praecox ‘Issai’ or Asclepias tuberosa. When friends talked like that, especially those not schooled in horticultural, I thought they sounded uppity. I pretended that I didn’t care, because after all, I just wanted a pretty garden; I really didn’t need to know what the plants were called.

But then I reached a point in my gardening life where gardening became important to me. I mean really important -- important beyond my own backyard. I wanted to communicate with other gardeners, and the only real way to do so was with botanical Latin.

I did actually try to learn some plant names back then -- quietly, in the car where no one would think I was being uppity. Truth be told, I was (and I still am) terrible at it. All these years later, I can admit it: I even had problems with words like Rudbeckia. So you can only imagine what something like Asclepias sounded like.

Even today, I forget to pronounce the "d" and "i" in Rudbeckia, spurting out Ru-beck-a instead. But it’s OK. No one really cares. At least I’m trying. It’s analogous to the French liking the fact you are at least trying to speak their language. If anyone acts uppity about my pronunciation, I forgive them.

As it turned out, the gardening world tossed me a do-over bone by changing so many of the names as various plants were reclassified. My first thought was, “Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t bother learning them the first go-round -- humph!” I needed some defense for being so lazy.

Getting past my smugness, I took this as my opportunity to do-over all on my own. I now actually find myself at a loss when people ask me about a plant’s common name, “What? The common name?; I don’t know; I really don’t know.”

Pronunciation help

Today, learning how to say botanical Latin is easy. There are some recordings available to hear specific botanical words pronounced, and websites that basically lay it out in a fashion that could be found in a book called Botanical Latin for Dummies; although I haven’t actually seen a book with that title -- it would be welcomed, I’m sure.

My gardening life gave me a chance to mash the botanical Latin do-over button, so I took it. It was one of the best gardening decision I’ve ever made. Won’t you join me in acting as though we know what we are doing by trying to roll Trachelospermum asiaticum around a bit?

Oh yes, there are those other two mash-able do-over buttons -- Journal and Read More. I’ll update you on those next time. My tongue is tied right now; you understand, right?


Helen Yoest, who lives in North Carolina and writes about Gardening With Confidence, will be blogging regularly at Diggin' It. She's a garden writer, speaker, and garden coach. She's also a field editor for Better Homes and Gardens and Country Gardens magazines and serves on the board of advisors for the JC Raulston Arboretum. You can follow Helen on Twitter and Facebook. Read her first Diggin' It post here.

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