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What’s in a botanical name?

Botanical five-a-day
Botanical five-a-day

Holiday time is all but over for us and we are now preparing to start our new term in September. One of the most daunting elements of the course for many is knowing they have to learn plants by their botanical names.

Few believe me when I say that they will know well over a hundred by Christmas – yet each year I am proved right!

Each week I give out 15 different botanical plant names and the plants themselves have to be correctly named the following week.

Sounds awful, right? No. It is actually not as bad as it may seem, as once you get started it is surprising how many are instantly recognisable as being the same, or very similar, to the ‘common’ names.

It is also probably the most important part of the course – as, without the correct name, it is very difficult to look up a plant in a gardening book if you need to know where or how to grow it.

Rosa, Buddleja, Lavandula, Forsythia, Rosmarinus, Petunia, Fuchsia, Hosta, Wisteria, Clematis. Yes, these are all botanical genus names – the name that is written first and starts with a capital letter.

The genus indicates a group of plants which have characteristics in common, but may include many forms – or species. We need the species name to indicate which specific plant we are talking about.

Clematis montana is similar, yet quite distinct, from Clematis alpina, or the evergreen Clematis armandii. Best to know which one you have before you prune them or you may come unstuck.

To help with the identification process we start with plants that we are familiar with. We know what they look like, just need to sort out the correct name. Edible plants – vegetables, fruit and herbs.

By the end of the first week of term, dinners may consist of Solanum tuberosum, Pisum sativum, Daucus carota and Zea mays, followed by Fragaria x ananassa or Prunus persica.

I know it may sound a bit ‘snobby’ using such fancy names for our potatoes, peas and carrots, but it is a way of starting to learn how names are put together, as for many plants, there is not an alternative ‘common’ name.

The genus name often comes from Latin or Greek, and quite often we use the same root words in English. The Greek word for dolphin is delphis – the common dolphin is Delphinus delphi. Our wonderful garden delphinium flowers resemble dolphins – hence the name.

We also find the species name can be descriptive, telling us where the plant comes from, its use, or what is looks like – its shape or its colour.

It is also a good way of making us really look and think about plants that we take for granted. Which part of the plant are we eating? Why is it edible – and tasty? The same specific epithet may be found in many names – but needs to be added to the genus name to make any sense. The Latin adjective sativum, sativus or sativa (ending depends on genus name ending) means cultivated – so relates to many edible crops. Hence Pisum sativum, Lactuca sativa, Raphanus sativus.

Trust me, it is fine once you get started.

n Manea School of Gardening (RHS Approved Centre). RHS courses taught at all levels. Limited places left for courses commencing in September.

Closed for plant sales until September.

www.maneaschoolof gardening.org


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