Nomenclature is simply a structured technique of naming. Botanic nomenclature assigns universally precise general or genus names with specific or species names to all plants. Such botanical names are also scientific and Latin names, but not common names. They are binomial with their uncapitalized species names after their capitalized genus names.
Latin, scientific or botanical names are the same for everyone everywhere, regardless of regional language. They simplify documentation and distribution of botanical information for plants that have different regional common names. Even if all other information needs translation, botanical names do not. They are really more common than common names.
Realistically, common names are no more common than common sense. Many regional names are common only within isolated or contained regions, such as individual islands of Polynesia. Aloalo of Hawaii are simply familiar hibiscus here. Lily of the Nile seems to be the only common name for Agapanthus, but is more familiar as thanh anh in Vietnam.
Acer platanoides is Latin for ‘maple which resembles a sycamore’. Acer pseudoplatanus is Latin for ‘maple which is a false sycamore’. Both are maples here, but also sycamores in England. Conversely, Platanus X acerifolia, which translates to ‘sycamore with maple foliage’ is a sycamore here, but a plane in England. Common names might be confusing.
This is why botanical names are so important. Arborists and horticulturists both here and in England recognize them regardless of possible inconsistencies with common names. Of course, common names are useful regionally. They may be easier to remember, more appealing or merely amusing. Pigsqueak and sticky monkey flower are difficult to forget.
Nonetheless, it might be helpful to be aware that some common names are inaccurate. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, unless of course, it is a Confederate rose, Lenten rose, rose of Sharon or rock rose. None of such roses are actually roses. Neither calla lily nor canna lily is a real lily. Neither dracaena palm nor sago palm is a real palm.
2 thoughts on “Common Names Are Potentially Uncommon”
Great article. Since I started blogging I’ve had readers in the UK ask for the botanical names. As I am not a professional, I never really paid attention until now. In my area, many plant names start with Mexican or Texas. It does signal that they will grow well here.
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This is why it is so frustrating when botanists change names that were designed to be permanent, and to contend with so many cultivar names for species that lack species names! Nomenclature was designed for simplicity.
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