Thursday, November 13, 2008

Botanical names or not?

Which is it: bee balm, horsemint, oswego tea, or bergamot?*

There's an interesting post by plant expert Allan Armitage over at Garden Rant about whether people in the hort industry should be using botanical or common names in the garden centres. Do you expect your customers to learn "Latin" names or not? This was the question at a recent landscape symposium where he was a speaker.

On the one hand, there is the argument that common names are confusing and that they vary throughout the country (never mind across continents). In addition, as gardeners and landscapers learn more, they get more comfortable referring to plants by their botanical names.

However, Armitage had a contrarian view:
“As professionals, we should know, use and promote the common names to simplify and make the buying experience more user-friendly. To think that my daughter Heather is ever going to learn Chaenomeles instead of quince, Baptisia rather than indigo, and to think she will ever get her tongue around Calibrachoa is ludicrous; she hasn’t the time or the interest. We should know those names, but yes, we should be using common names. Absolutely. Not as a substitute but as a way of making Heather feel more comfortable.”
You can read the whole post here. The comments are interesting too, with people weighing in on both sides of the issue.

I'm inclined to agree with Armitage, but I think it's always good to use both when possible to avoid confusion, even though it's a lot for my aging brain to keep straight. (But thanks to Dr. Google, and a library of hort books in my study, it's not too much trouble.)

What do you think?

*Monarda didyma (Photo: Margaret Grant)

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener


  1. A very interesting discussion indeed.
    I believe that most people find it easiest to use the common name of a plant. When you become a full-time hobby gardener, however, you find satisfaction in knowing/using latin names too.
    When I arrived to Canada from my native Denmark, I already had more than 18 years of gardening experience and almost no knowledge of proper botanical names. Needless to say, I had no knowledge at all of the common English names so since then I am a believer in using the latin names in addition to the common ones.
    I took some horticultural courses at University of Guelph. One course was about weeds and common names were used. Thanks to DR. Google, I found latin names that I in turn looked up on a Danish site - and voila, I found out that I already knew most of the pesky weeds.
    Because it's a wonderful universal system - to me it is just as important as the "common" names (that are not always easy to translate).

  2. Hi Yvonne, I have to agree. Now I'm not a scientist, but I have a friend that is a biologist/gardener and she has not learned many of the common names. I aspire to learn the Latin names but I have to hear them to learn them. I'm a bit dyslexic so trying to read and pronounce Latin usually gets my husband rolling on the floor. I am afraid to use a Latin term in public if I haven’t learned it from an expert! I love to watch garden shows like “A Gardener’s Dairy” where they use both Common and Latin most of the time.
    There are days I wander around saying the Latin names over and over so they imprint in my brain! Ha Ha! I also have some books that give the pronunciation with the Latin name…. it’s just a matter of studying. For me being with gardeners and learning is the most fun. I used both names when I know them and will spend the rest of my days learning the ones I don’t know.
    This is a great post as usual Yvonne! Thanks!

  3. ....for you Eve
    Here is a web-site with pronounciation of latin words.

  4. Thanks, Salix, that's very useful!

  5. I have to say that I am all about the latin - the botanical names. There are too many plants that get lost amidst the 'common names' that seem to be based more on geography and generational influences than anything else. In saying this I have also been labelled as a 'Hoiti-hort' by many of my gardening friends who prefer the common names.

  6. Hi Teza: Welcome. I enjoyed exploring your blog. I agree with you, and have also been labeled as such for using bot Latin. I do find you have to keep using all the names to keep them fresh in your mind. Do ya think it will keep our brains in gear?

  7. I absolutely prefer the latin names, no confusion and the whole world knows exactly which plant we are talking about . I find it so frustrating when reading about plants in a foreign language and they call the plants by local names and I have to google them to know what they talk about.


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-Yvonne, aka Country Gardener