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What’s in a name?

The bluebell has different names in different countries
The bluebell has different names in different countries

One of the first things we teach on our courses is the correct use of Botanical Nomenclature.

The use of these ‘Fancy names’ may sound a little complicated – even boring – but is so very, very important so that we all know EXACTLY what plant we are talking about.

This is why I put the full botanical name in these articles as well as a ‘common’ name if I think it is applicable.

The common name is the one known and used by most people for well-known plants. The origin will, in most cases, date back to the time the plant was first known or cultivated. So what is the problem with this?

Many plants will have a wide variety of ‘common’ names. This is often the case for cottage garden plants and natives, especially ones that were used as herbs – the same plant will have been known by different names in different areas of the country.

A ‘common’ name may mean different plants to different people, and in different areas or countries.

For example, Bluebell. To many of us this is a spring-flowering woodland plant that grows from a bulb; to the Scottish, it is a small campanula that grows on the moors (we may know it as a Harebell); the North American ‘bluebell’ is a Camassia. There is also a Bluebell climber (Sollya)…and various other plants known as ‘blue bells’ in different countries.

The common name may be very misleading! We all know what a Rose is…… but as for Christmas Rose, Rock Rose, Rose, Rose of Sharon, Rosemary – no, not even from the Rosaceae family.

The common name in a country is in the language of that country – it may not translate easily, or make sense in another language. This would make effective communication between countries very difficult.

The common name does not uniquely identify a plant. There will often be many plants within a Genus which share the same ‘common’ name – and they could actually be quite different in their life cycle, preferred location, etc.

Iris – the flowers are distinctive, but there are dainty dwarf alpine forms (bulbs), vigorous yellow flag irises growing as a marginal plant in ponds, the exotic looking bearded iris in herbaceous borders.

The other week I wrote about a stunning shrub, Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’, a common name of which is the Wedding Cake tree due to its layered branches topped with white lace-cap like blooms like a dusting of icing. A reader of this column commented that he grows a plant with a similar habit, Cornus controversa, which shares the same ‘common’ name. He believed I was writing about a plant known as the Japanese Snowball Bush, Viburnum plicatum – which has round snowball-like inflorescences, unlike ‘Mariesii’ which is the cultivar to which I was referring.

To confuse matters further, the Snowball Bush most often seen in our gardens is Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’, a sterile cultivar of a native hedgerow plant, Viburnum opulus. This has the common name of Guelder Rose, and apart from the fact it is not a rose, or even related to roses, this bears flattened lace-cap like blooms similar to V. p. ‘Mariesii’.

Hence the use of Botanical nomenclature – and the secondary use of a ‘common’ name.

n Manea School of Gardening (RHS Approved Centre).

RHS Courses taught at all levels. Applications now being taken for September. Now open for plant sales on Saturdays.



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