Ever fall in love with a plant at first sight? The first thing you’ll want to know is its name. All too often, you’ll get a “common” name that is anything but common. The friend whose garden you saw it in may know it only as his Aunt Serena’s zinnia, or it may be a classic “pass along” plant with a distinctive moniker such as “Confederate Rose” that has little to do with its botanical origins!
These common plant names are like nicknames. While almost everyone you know may call you by a nickname, it may be that your parents have one nickname for you, your friends another, and your partner a third. Over a lifetime you might accumulate several different nicknames that reflect your life at different stages or in different places.
Give me the botanical name!
What you really need to know is the plant’s botanical name. Just as you’re expected to provide the first and last name on your birth certificate when you get a Social Security card or driver’s license, plants have two-part names, or binomials. Just as we typically alphabetize a list of names with the last name first, plant names have the more general name—the genus—first, followed by the more specific name—the species—second. Typically, botanical names are italicized and only the genus is capitalized, though. So “Confederate Rose,” for example, is actually Hibiscus mutabilis.
You already know some botanical names.
Some plants are known by their botanical names rather than common names, but we tend to know only their genus: Begonia, Hosta, Iris, and Zinnia, for example! To identify any particular plant we need to know the species and often the variety or cultivar.
And that’s precisely why names matter. Knowing a plant is an Iris won’t help you find out much about where and how it grows unless you know the species. And if you want a plant that has that particular flower shape and color, you’ll need to know the variety or cultivar name.
Different species may not look that different, but they may require very different growing conditions, may be hardier or more perennial.
When do species matter?
I found out the hard way that knowing the species matters. I tried for years to grow coneflowers (Rudbeckia), but they grew erratically. After a little detective work, I realized that I was planting Rudbeckia hirta and Rudbeckia triloba varieties, which tend to be short-lived perennials, rather than Rudbeckia fulgida or Rudbeckia subtomentosa varieties, which are reliably perennial! Other popular perennials, such as Coreopsis and Heuchera, include many different species that require different growing conditions. For example, some species prefer damp soils and others prefer dry soils. Choosing plant species that like the growing conditions you have will definitely enhance your reputation as a successful gardener.
Finally, it is useful to recognize that many plants we purchase for our gardens are hybrids—crosses between species or between a species and another hybrid. Hybridizers select for desirable plant traits, so the resulting plants may have larger flowers, or unusual colors. Note, though, that bigger or more unusual is not necessarily better when it comes to attractiveness to birds or pollinators.
If you hesitate to pronounce botanical names, remember there are no hard and fast rules! Here is an aid that will help you feel more confident if you try: http://www.finegardening.com/pronunciation-guide/a
Article written by Debbie Green, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.