Nomenclature Is More Than Botanical

90515thumbSimply put, ‘nomenclature’ is how things get named. It is not exactly like naming a child or a dog, or even a new small country in the South Pacific. There is a certain technique to it that is more like naming cars. Well, it ‘was’ like naming cars, a long time ago when cars had simple names rather than numbers and letters. Coincidentally, nomenclature of plants is getting to be just as confusing.

Plants and other biological organisms are assigned Latin names, which for plants, are also known as botanical names. These names are universal, for everyone, everywhere in the World. Almost all plants also have common names that are more or less regional. That is why what is known as Norway maple here is known as sycamore in England, but both are Acer platanoides everywhere.

The first part of a Latin name designates the ‘genus’, which is the more ‘general’ of the two parts of the name. (genus = general) For example, all true maples, including those that are known as sycamores in England, are within the same genus of ‘Acer‘. Genus names are like ‘Buick’, ‘Oldsmobile’ and ‘Pontiac’ for cars. They distinguish a general group, but are no more specific than that.

The second part of a Latin name designates the ‘species’ which is the more ‘specific’ of the two parts of the name (species = specific) For example, within the genus off Acer, the Norway maple is designated as Acer platanoides. Species names are like ‘Electra’, ‘Riviera’ and ‘Skylark’ for cars. They designate specific cars within the big general group that is collectively known as ‘Buick’.

There are of course more general and more specific classifications as well. Just as Buick, Olsmobile and Pontiac are within the group known as General Motors, the genus of Acer is within the family known as Sapindaceae along with Aesculus (horse chestnut) and Litchi (Lychee). ‘Schwedleri’ is a cultivar (cultivated variety) of Acer platanoides, just as some Buick Electra are ‘Limited’.

Incidentally, rules of proper nomenclature dictate that Latin names are italicized, and that the genus name is capitalized, while the species name is not.


Nomenclature Is The Name Game

60302thumbNomenclature is a standardized technology of naming. It dictates the universal ‘botanical’ names of all plants, so that everyone everywhere can communicate more efficiently about horticulture. Botanical names might seem confusing, and maybe even unflattering, but they eliminate the confusion associated with regional common names that are as variable as languages and cultures.

For example, the white pine from Northern California is not the same as the white pine from Maine, even though they both have the same common name. However, Pinus monticola, the white pine from Northern California, is the same everywhere, even if grown in Maine. This particular botanical name is only for this particular white pine, so eliminates confusion with other white pines.

Botanical names are also known as ‘Latin’ names because they are (obviously) Latin. The first name is the more general part of the name, so is known as the ‘genus’ (or ‘genera’ in plural). The second name is the more specific part of the name, so is known as the ‘species’ (or ‘specie’ in plural). The genus name should be capitalized; but the species name is not. Both are italicized.

Acer is the genus of all maples. Salix is the genus of all willows. These names identify particular genera, but are no more specific alone. Acer rubrum more specifically identifies a popular North American maple that is known locally as red maple. Salix babylonica specifically identifies a common willow known locally as weeping willow. This is almost as specific as nomenclature gets.

A few specie have varieties or cultivars (cultivated varieties) which are variants of the basic species. Variety or cultivar names are added after specie names. They are capitalized, unitalicized and semi-quoted. For example, Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ is the October Glory red maple. Olea europaea ‘Little Ollie’ is a fruitless, dense and short cultivar of the familiar European olive tree.

Nomenclature of plants is similar to nomenclature of cars. Buick, Chrysler and Mercury are genera of cars. Electra, Imperial and Grand Marquis are specie of Buick, Chrysler and Mercury, respectively. ‘Limited’, ‘Custom’ and ‘Brougham’ are their cultivars. There are of course many more plants with bigger and stranger names, but the system for identification works the same way.

Horridculture – Promiscuity


71206Nomenclature of the botanical sort was so much simpler back when we studied it back in the 1980s. It was intended to be like that. It was how the various specie of plants were identified and classified. There were certain rules that simply made sense. After ‘family’, plants were classified into general ‘genera’, and then further classified into specific ‘specie’. Some specie were further classified into ‘varieties’ and ‘cultivars’. (Cultivars are simply ‘cultivated varieties’ that need to be perpetuated by cloning because they are too genetically unstable to be true-to-type from seed.)

The genus name is always first. The species name is always second. Because they are Latin, they should be italicized. Any variety or cultivar names are last, not italicized, and in semi-quotations.

Back in the 1980s, there were a few specie that did not quite fit into such neat classification. Intergeneric hybrids (between two parents of different genera) were designated by an ‘X’ before the genus name, such as X Fatshedera lizei, which is a hybrid between Fatsia japonica and Hedera helix. Interspecific hybrids (between twp parents of different specie) were designated by an ‘X’ before the species name, such as Platanus X acerifolia, which is a hybrid between two different specie of the same genus of Platanus. Then there are different species that hybridize freely, but are still designated as separate specie, such as Washingtonia robusta and Washingtonia filifera, but that is another story.

Nowadays, with so much weirdly promiscuous breeding, it is difficult to know what specie or even genera some of the modern varieties and cultivars fit into. Consequently, species names are often omitted, and genus names are sometimes changed. It is getting difficult to know the differences between the two formerly distinct genera of Gaillardia and Rudbekia.

What is even sillier is that all this is happening while ‘sustainability’ and gardening for ‘bees’ are such fads. Weirdly bred specie . . . or whatever they are, are likely unable produce viable seed, so are just the opposite of sustainable. They only sustain their own marketability by ensuring the need for replacement. Some make no pollen for the bees that visit the flowers expecting to find some. Some make pollen of questionable nutritional value, or serve it in complicated flowers that might be difficult for bees to navigate.

There certainly are advantages to simplicity.71129

Apologies for the delay of posting ‘Horridculture’, which is normally posted on Wednesday. I was unable to write, so advanced the article that was intended for today to Wednesday, and finished writing this rant for today.



It is now September 2, the day after both the feastday of Saint Fiacre, patron saint of gardeners, and the first anniversary of this blog. It is also the anniversary of the only day in the last year that I did not post anything. Yes, the second day of the blog was the only day without a post. Early in those first few days, I posted the only article that was irrelevant to horticulture, and an explanation that I would not make a habit of doing so. I wanted to try it just once to see if I could do it like so many others do. It was overrated. Nonetheless, after almost a year since that naughty diversion from my self imposed discriminating standards, I want to try it again. After all, I have not yet posted a horticulturally oriented article on September 2 within the context of this blog, so why start now.

This is Privet. He passed away on December 1, 2004, after about eleven years of devout service since about 1993 or so.
Privet was a feral dog who lived in Thomspson Creek behind a retail nursery in the Evergreen District of San Jose where I worked temporarily in the early 1990s. Late every afternoon, he commuted down Thompson Creek to a neighborhood pet store where food was left out for him. Aster and Yarrow, two angry guard dogs who lived in the nursery, would thrash about on the inside of the enclosing cyclone fence as they tried to get to him, but only damaged the merchandise inside the fence. I would cuss at him and threaten him through the fence. He would just stare at me blankly, and keep a safe distance.
One day, Privet was noticeably absent. He was likewise absent the following day. In fact, I did not see him again until several weeks later when we went to the Humane Society of Santa Clara County to adopt a cat to help with the mice in the office. We happened to go through the wrong door to where the adoptable dogs were. There he was! As usual, I cussed at him and said all sorts of mean things to him . . . .until I noticed that his time was up. I asked someone who worked there what that ominous date on his placard meant, only to be told something too unpleasant to repeat here. They were understaffed, so had not gotten around to it yet. Well, the next thing I knew I had payed the adoption fees, and Privet was sitting defiantly next to me in the Buick as we drove away real fast. We never spoke of it again.

My niece named this cool dude Willow, but we just called him Bill because I was told that Willow is a girly name. He was not planned either. In about 2008, I saw his picture on the website of the Peninsula Humane Society in Burlingame. Without thinking, I drove up and adopted him on the spot. On the way, I telephone a friend who I though would try to talk me out of it. He did not. Those working at the Humane Society asked if I would like to interview other dogs. I told them who I was there for. Bill was a several years old when we met. He became blind and deaf in old age, but was still happy until he passed away on December 4, 2016.

Rhody arrived only a few months later, early in 2017 and in the traditional unplanned manner. I can not imagine why he was available for adoption for several months in Santa Cruz. It was not my idea for him to come live with me. It was his. I could not talk him out of it. He seems to be remarkably happy with his simple lifestyle, although I can not imagine why. I wish I could provide better for him. Like Privet and Bill, he has more friends than he can keep up with. Privet was a Pontiac man. Bill was an Oldsmobile man. So far, Rhody seems to be a simple Chevrolet man.

Blackjack does not live with me. He is not a dog either. He is a big kitty who has enslaved one of my colleagues, although my colleague does not seem to be aware of it. Cats are of course masters of mind control techniques. Blackjack did not get his name from the blackjack oak. It is just a cool name that suits him well. He is not really as demonic as he seems to be in this picture. Nor is he trying to fly upside down. He just happened to yawn while laying on his back and stretching.
Of course, only the names are horticultural. None of these guys cares about gardening. I sort of feel guilty about not writing about a horticultural topic today, but perhaps I will get over it.


P80630KWhat are they doing out there, in those two pots in the island of such a vast parking lot? It is hard to say from this distance. They are so isolated. They might be happy and healthy summer blooming annuals. They might just be weeds. They could be plotting World domination. Plants can do some weird things in isolation.

Mexican fan palm is the most familiar palm in Los Angeles. Some know them as skydusters because they are so tall and lanky, and do not seem to have anything better to do than lazily brush against the undersides of clouds as they float by. In Los Angeles, there are not many clouds to keep them busy, and there is not even much smog anymore. Mexican fan palms certainly do not make much shade, and because they are so tall, their little shadows land in neighbors’ yards. They are so tall that you might be able to see them from wherever you are merely by looking towards Los Angeles. Instead of getting Frisbees and kites stuck in their canopies, they collect satellites. When they drop one of their big leaves, it burns up in the atmosphere.

In their natural environment, Mexican fan palm lives in a large and mostly contiguous native range (areas) in which individual colonies are not isolated for too long. Pollen gets shared rather thoroughly. Trees are consequently very similar throughout the range. Slight genetic variation is only perceptible in regions such as Los Angeles, where various groups of trees are grown from seed collected from various regions of the native range.P80630K+

Sometime in the ancient history of the specie, a few individuals decided to leave the rest of the herd and go live in isolation out in the adjacent deserts. They could only survive where there was a bit of water, so they inhabited any oasis they could find. This might have happened as some trees migrated up canyons that had perennial creeks flowing through them only to have the lower portion of the canyon go dry as outflow from above decreased. Seismic activity within the region has a way of altering the outflow of springs. Anyway, these more reclusive palms eventually became a separate species, or subspecies, or variety, depending on the botanist providing the information. This separate species (or subspecies or variety) is now known as the California fan palm, or the desert fan palm. It thrives on the hot and arid desert air, but is not very happy in milder and more humid coastal climates. (I am sorry that I do not have a good picture at the moment.)

Unlike Mexican fan palm that lives in a big contiguous range, California fan palms lives in small isolated colonies where they can not share their pollen freely with other colonies. Over thousands of years, each colony adapts to its specific environmental conditions. Genetic variation within colonies is not perceptible, but is quite obvious in landscape situations where trees grown from seed from different colonies can be compared.

California fan palm is much shorter and stouter than Mexican fan palm. It does not need to compete with too many other specie out in the desert. The trunks are straighter, and the canopies are fluffier. Unlike the very informal and relaxed Mexican fan palm, it is an excellent palm for formal landscapes. It is the specie that flanks the famous Palm Driveway at the Winchester House in San Jose. The only stipulation for these formal installations is that all the palms must be grown from the same batch of seeds procured from the same colony.

Politically Incorrect Horticulture

P71008Landscape Designer, Brent Green and I are both very professional at work. Brent is particularly well dressed, well groomed and well spoken. I happen to be simpler and plainer, but it works for the clients who respect my expertise. What our clients do not see is how we interact with each other. It would be very easy to be offended. Yet, we consult with each other almost daily, usually when Brent is driving somewhere . . . alone. We get loud, obnoxious, rude, crude, potty mouthed and just plain nasty!

Years ago, when Brent got his telephone connected to the stereo in the car, he made the mistake of driving up to a drive through window at a fast food establishment while talking to me. I listened to him place his order, and then shouted, “THIS IS A HOLDUP! GIVE ME ALL YOUR MONEY!”.

Last year, while stuck in traffic on southbound Highway 17 with the top down in the old Chrysler, I took a call from Brent. I was using some weird hands-free device at first; but when Brent started rapping about some very objectionable subject matter, I just had to share. I disconnected the device so that the call was coming through on the stereo, and turned the stereo up very loud. I just sat there calmly and tried to look as if I did not know where all the commotion was coming from, although it was obvious. I just didn’t care. Neither did Brent. He was 350 miles away.

However, not all of our nonsense is so senseless. We have developed quite a bit or our own private vocabulary and horticultural slang. It works for us because we share so much common experience. Much of the slang applies to ‘ethnic horticulture’, which refers to the gardening styles of particular ethnic groups. Brent’s favorite ethnic group to invent ethnic horticultural slang for is of course mine. Although I am only halfway of Italian descent, I can really identify with Brent’s observations of the gardening habits of people of Italian descent.

My ancestors have been here so long that the ‘old country’ refers to Sunnyvale (California). Yet, somehow, some traditions continue through many generations. My great grandfather grew many of the plants that are very stereotypical of Italian American gardening. My pa is more cosmopolitan, but he and I still enjoy some of what we learned from my great grandfather.

This is some of the slang that Brent developed for some of what I grow in my garden:

  • dago pansy – nasturtium
  • dago begonia – geranium
  • dago sunflower – dahlia
  • dago rhododendron – oleander
  • dago tomato – tomato (duh)
  • dago wisteria – grape
  • dago plum – fig
  • dago berry – olive
  • dago spruce – Italian cypress
  • dago firewood – any fruitless tree
  • dago ghetto grass – Astroturf (not in my garden)
  • dago groundcover – red lava rock or white moonrock

Automotive Horticulture

P70929The nomenclature of horticulture, or the ‘naming’ of plants, is very similar to that of automobiles. All those confusing Latin names work just like the names of cars, with species, genus and even family. The Electra is made by Buick, which is a subsidiary of General Motors. I write an article about this every so often. It probably made more sense back many years ago, when both cars and plants were simpler.

Nowadays, it is difficult to distinguish between the different kinds of cars. There are so many different kinds, and they all look so similar. Buicks are not nearly as stylish and distinctive as they once were, and do not look much better than a well outfitted Honda! Cadillac and Lincoln make station wagons, which are now known as SUVs; and they even made pickups! Many cars have one name on the outside, and another, or a few on the inside. A Chrysler might be made by Mercedes Benz, with a Japanese engine! Many cars that had been ‘imports’ are make locally. There are so many different models that some do not even get names. They just get numbers. What is the point of trying to keep track of them all?

Plants have done the same. So many of the reliable and standard specie that had been around until the 80s have been replaced by too many modern cultivars and hybrids to count. Some have been hybridized so extensively between different specie of the same genus that they are not even assigned a specie name! They are merely known by their cultivar name. For example, Grevillea ‘Peaches and Cream’ lacks a species name because no one know who the parents were. (It might be a Grevillea banksii X Greillea bipinnatifida hybrid. See the article about it at What is the point of using standardized nomenclature without the standards? This is not like Madonna or Cher, who do not need last names because they are so unique. Plants need their names more than before because there are so many new ones.

Cars have been improved in the most important ways. They are much safer than older cars. They are also much more efficient and remarkably more durable. The main problem with these improvements is that cars are so difficult to maintain for those who are not professional automotive technicians. Those of us who were inclined to maintain our own vehicles years ago must now take them to mechanics. Although vehicles are designed to need much less maintenance and to last longer, they eventually need to be replaced when maintenance is no longer practical. They are not as sustainable as old cars that can sometimes be repaired with part found in a common hardware store.

Plants have likewise been improved to do what we want them to do better. Foliage is better and more resilient, and in some cases, more colorful. Flowers are more abundant, more colorful, and last longer. Whatever plants were supposed to do before, many do better now. The main problem with all the breeding and hybridizing necessary for these unnatural improvements is that it interferes with what plants need to do naturally. Some are not able to produce viable seed, (although this is an advantage for potentially invasive plants). Others are genetically weak, and therefore more susceptible to disease and insect infestation. Perennials that once perpetuated themselves indefinitely now die out in only a few years. Plants that were once easy to propagate are now not so cooperative. Like modern cars, plants can not be maintained as long as they once were, so need to be replaced instead of sustained.