Archive for Sunday, February 8, 1998

GARDEN SPOT: UNDERSTANDING BOTANICAL PLANT NAMES

February 8, 1998

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Botany basics help everyone understand which blooms are which.

In Capulet's orchard, a young Juliet says to Romeo ``What's in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet ...'' (``Romeo and Juliet;'' Act II, Scene II, William Shakespeare.)

Although we are prone to admit that a rose is a rose, is it really? To be sure, the flower does smell sweet. And we know one when we see it. But what do we call the flower? How is it named? What does the name tell us? Is it really a rose, or is it more accurately called a rosa or a rosaceae?

What's in a name, indeed. Garden enthusiasts identify plants in a variety of ways. Botanists, horticulturists and gardeners each have names for plants, names that may be widely different from those used by the other groups. Yet, somehow we manage to communicate with each other about our garden plants, though it isn't unusual for some of us to get a little lost or confused.

We slide into each other's territory, often mispronouncing the long names. In the end we are sometimes unsure if we have actually talked about the intended plant. Before the gardening season begins in earnest, a brief primer might be in order to bridge the name gap and eliminate some of the bewilderment.

Botanical names generally are in a Latin form. They are easily recognized because they tend to end in aceae. Thus, the botanist refers to Juliet's sweet smelling flower as rosaceae. The horticulturist may identify it by a different name -- one that reflects the plant's genus and species, for example, Rosa rugosa. Horticultural names have been published since 1959. Common names, on the other hand, have become a part of our everyday language. They are the names that many of us are most familiar with -- simply stated, a rose.

An understanding of basic horticultural terms is necessary to get the full picture of what goes into plant names. The review will probably take us back to our high school science days.

Family: A group of plants that shares general characteristics. Plants within a family may include many or few genera. Rosaceae is the name for the rose family.

Genus: A group of plants that constitutes the subdivision of a family. A genus may contain groups of species that are somewhat related and share certain obvious structural characteristics that have been determined by botanical study. The genus name, a noun, may come from mythology, literature or other sources which refer to something the plant resembles.

Species: The subdivision of a group of plants within a genus. Plants of a species are closely related to each other and freely capable of interbreeding. The method to determine a plant's inclusion in a species is based upon its characteristics, appearance or place of origin. The species name may be derived from the name of the person credited with its discovery. Species are botanically classified by analysis of the flower parts and characteristics for flowering plants, and by the seed/cone for coniferous and other nonflowering plants. The abbreviations sp. or spp. are used to indicate a species.

Variety: A group of plants within a species. The differences among the plants within a variety are too insignificant to constitute their being another species. Generally, the seed of a variety germinates true to the parent plant for distinguishing characteristics. Plants within a variety originated in the wild and are said to be true varieties. Those that are cultivated are considered cultivars.

Cultivar: The name is a blend of ``cultivated variety'' and represents plants that have been developed through horticultural techniques. Sometimes the origin of a cultivar is unknown. Cultivars are cultivated for specific characteristics such as growth forms, foliage or flower color. The term is used internationally and has come to replace ``variety.''

Hybrid: The result of the cross-fertilization of two plants from closely related species yet dissimilar in one or more characteristics. Hybrids are developed through human intervention to develop a distinctly new plant. Unfortunately, the seed produced by the offspring is rarely capable of reproducing the same characteristics of its parents.

Latin lessons

The 18th-century botanist Carl Linnaeus is credited with developing the widely accepted system used to name and identify plants. The method Linnaeus suggested uses the name of the genus as the first name of the plant and the species as the second name. This method is used whether the plant occurs naturally or has been cultivated.

The correct manner for writing plant names is to start with its genus name, capitalizing the first letter, and then write its species name in all lower case letters. Both names are italicized. The gender of both names must match. Latin names that end in ``us'' are a masculine form. Those that end in ``a'' and ``es'' are feminine word forms. Neutral gender endings are ``um,'' ``n,'' and ``ma.''

When a plant is a cultivar, a single quote appears before and after the cultivar name. The word is not italicized as the genus and species are, but is capitalized if the name generally appears with a capital letter, for example, if it is the name of a person or place.

To be sure, the advantage to using the horticultural name of a plant is the assurance that the correct plant is obtained. Gardeners can be confident that the characteristics for which the specific plant was bred will be seen in the garden. Use the name. It does not matter if your pronunciation is off a little. Besides, who will know the difference?

The advantage for using the common names ascribed to plants is that they are so much easier to remember and are ones that most gardeners know. Who among us cannot conjure up an image of a petunia, a marigold or a lily?

If Romeo and Juliet were to stroll through my garden, they would see small metal stakes scattered throughout it. Carefully placed on each marker is the name of the plant that stands behind it. None of the information on plant markers looks alike.

Once in a while a botanical name appears, like the one that announces the prize winning coral bells, Heuchera sanguinea "purple palace," growing near my side porch. Most of the markers list the plants by their common names -- such as lamb's ear and daylily and painted daisy. Occasionally, when I remembered, the year the specimen was planted has been noted. At least one of the signs, a gag gift from my husband, warns garden visitors that the flower bed is planted with ``Weeds.''

Yet, my favorite marker is one that marks the plants given to me by my dad several years ago. He apologized for not knowing the name of the plant that faithfully blooms in late May with delicate flowers of bright yellow borne atop deep green leaves. The sign simply says ``Dad's Yellow Flowers.'' They thrive in my garden, in sun and in shade, come rain or shine. His flower, no matter the name, by any name, would still be so sweet.

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at gardenspot

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