Ah, the charm and foibles of plant names.
To suit the precise-minded, there are botanical (scientific) names. And then there are the “easier” common names. Both are important and both burdened by their own eccentricities.
For example, common names such as “beard tongue” and “goat’s beard” give a hint of what plant it describes, but not to most of us. Beard tongue refers to the tiny hairs at the tip of the tube’s corolla on a penstemon. If you want goat’s beard, best look for aruncus.
Seriously, there are good reasons for both scientific and common names. Each has its place in the plant world.
Most of us can scoff at those seemingly unpronounceable scientific names that don’t exactly roll effortlessly off the tongue. Back when plants were being studied in the 16th and 17th centuries, Latin and Greek (root sources of most botanical names) were familiar languages to many. No so today for most of us.
Agastache, pronounced a-gah-STA-kee, comes to mind. It’s Greek, meaning numerous flower spikes. Such a lovely, modest, undemanding little perennial with tubular flowers that are hummingbird magnets. And no common name.
OK, so let’s give it a descriptively easy name like “hummingbird flower.”
There are so many that could be easily have the moniker “hummingbird flower” — that’s why common names aren’t at all exacting. A whole bunch of plants not at all related could have this name.
Pelargonium (pe-lar-GON-ee-um) is the proper name for what most of us call geraniums. You know, the ones we treat as annuals that have domed clusters of impressive flowers decorating planters, hanging baskets and such. Pelargonium refers to their stork-beak like seed pods in Greek. The perennial hardy geranium is the honest geranium, less noticed by the public but still a nice landscape plant, yet very different from pelargonium.
In further study, sometimes botanists determine a plant is in the wrong genus. For instance, the feathery grass Stipa has recently been changed to the genus Nassella. Its common name is needle grass.
Botanical names basically include genus and species. Genus is a group of plants with common structural characteristics. Within that genus are groups of plants further broken down into specific features, and that’s species. Often species are descriptive names (examples following are in parenthesis), such as origin of the plant (japonica), color of flower (alba), type of structure (compacta) or other characteristic (fragrans).
Often botanical names include the person who discovered or first described the plant, such as our dainty native Lewisia. Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame was the first to sketch and describe this lovely little gem.
Kniphofia (pronounced nee-FOF-ee-a) came by that moniker as attributed to 18th century botanist Johann Kniphof. Luckily its common name, red hot poker or torch lily, is much more descriptive. But torch lily could easily be applied to several very different plants.
Some plants are further divided into either variety or cultivar. A variety is a further subgroup of a plant that consistently grows the same. A cultivar is a hybridization or selection of a plant with clearly distinct characteristics from other varieties. Hybrids are a distinct plant resulting from two species being crossed.
Common names are most likely more comfortable to many of our readers. We writers try to give both names to keep it understandable for either botanical aficionados or the general gardener who doesn’t want to be bothered with delving into botanical, unpronounceable names.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in the At Home section. Mary Fran McClure is one of three columnists featured.