Common Names Are Potentially Uncommon

Lily is neither calla nor canna.

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.


Cultivars Are Merely Cultivated Varieties

Cultivars are distinct within their species.

Nomenclature is simply the technique of naming. Botanically and horticulturally, it is also a precise method of classification. Large classifications divide into smaller and exclusive classifications, which likewise divide. Botanical families divide into many genera, which likewise divide into many species. Some species divide further into varieties or cultivars. 

For example, Schwedler maple is within the Sapindaceae family. This family divides into many genera including the maple genus of Acer. (Genera is plural of genus.) This genus divides into varied species, including the Norway maple species of platanoides. Norway maple divides into more cultivars, including ‘Schwedlerii’, which is the Schwedler maple. 

Therefore, the botanical name of the Schwedler maple is Acer platanoides ‘Schwedlerii’. Family names are omissible. Genus names justify capitalization. Species names do not. Both genus and species names appear in italics. (Incidentally, genera are more ‘genera’l than ‘speci’fic species.) Single quotation marks contain names of varieties and cultivars.

Varieties are, as their designation implies, variants of a species. Some are dwarf, like the dwarf pampas grass. Some bloom with atypical color, like the maroon Texas bluebonnet. Their variations are natural and at least somewhat inheritable. Cultivars are varieties that can not perpetuate naturally, so are reliant on cultivation. They are ‘cultiva’ted ‘var’ieties.

Some cultivars developed from breeding. Others are naturally occurring mutants that are desirable enough to perpetuate. Because their unique characteristics are not inheritable, perpetuation is artificial. Seed of cultivars that originated as mutants lacks any desirable mutation. Seed of extensively bred cultivars is genetically unstable, or may not be viable. 

Most cultivars therefore rely on cloning for perpetuation. Propagation by cutting, grafting, division, layering and tissue culture, generates genetically identical copies of an original. Although it is illegal to propagate patented cultivars for profit, most common cultivars are too old for patents. Many perennial cultivars, such as iris and canna, proliferate naturally. 

Gardening Has Something In Common With Automobiles.

Buick is the genus. Electra is the species. Buick Electra is universally the most elegant luxury sedan of all time!

Horticulturists, biologists, and many other professionals who may interact with colleagues who speak other languages or even slightly different regional dialects use Latin to identify, among other things, biological organisms. Latin names may be cumbersome to pronounce and daunting to spell, but are universal to those of us who use them. This is important because common names are so regionally variable.

For example, some of the European maples that we know as maples here are known as sycamores in England, but are known everywhere by their Latin name of Acer. Similarly, North American sycamores that are known as maples or plane trees in various regions are all likewise known everywhere by their Latin name of Platanus. The universality of Latin names therefore facilitates accurate identification.

Latin names are very helpful when researching plants. A tree known simply as a ‘cedar’ might be a calocedrus, arborvitae, juniper, cypress, chamaecyparis or a true cedar, just to name a few. Knowing that the particular tree is more specifically a ‘red cedar’ perhaps limits the possibilities to arborvitae or juniper. Identifying the tree specifically as a Juniperus virginiana will help us find the most accurate information about it, even though it is not really a cedar at all, but a juniper. Juniperus is the general ‘genus’ name of all junipers. Virginiana is the specific ‘species’ name of the particular juniper that is known locally as the Eastern red cedar. (‘Genera’ and ‘specie’ are plural for ‘genus’ and ‘species’.)

Latin names work like the names of cars. Buick, Chrysler and Mercury are all like genus names. Electra, Imperial and Grand Marquis are all like species names of particular Buicks, Chryslers and Mercurys. ‘Limited’, ‘Custom’ and ‘Brougham’ are like variety names, like ‘Variegata’, ‘Compacta’, and ‘Schwedleri’.

As universal as Latin names should be, a few sometimes get changed. This can be confusing, and causes some plants to become known more commonly by either their new or old name, as well as the other name as a ‘synonym’. For example, Dietes bicolor and Morea bicolor are the same plant; but not many know for certain which name is more correct. It is like when Datsun became Nissan, but was also known as Datsun for many years afterward.

Nomenclature Was Designed For Simplicity

Simple standardized nomenclature is getting rusty.

Buick Electra used to mean something. Chrysler Imperial and Lincoln Town Car did also. That was at a time when cars were still distinguishable. Instead of random numbers with a few letters, they had distinctive names. These names, although distinct, conformed to a standardized pattern. This pattern of naming was comparable to botanical nomenclature. 

According to botanical nomenclature, plants are identifiable by genus and species. Their ‘gen’us is a more ‘gen’eral designation than their ‘speci’fic ‘speci’es designation. A family is a larger and more general classification than genus, and in turn, fits into another more general group. Most of us are not concerned with the many classifications beyond family. 

For example, the botanical name of silver maple is Acer saccharinum. Acer is the genus. saccharinum is the species. Acer saccharinum is in the Sapindaceae family. (For botany, genus and species names are italicized, and species names are not capitalized.) Buick Electra is similarly in the General Motors family. Buick is its genus. Electra is its species.

Varieties and cultivars are even more specific designations within species. Some are the products of breeding. Some are naturally occurring. A cultivar is a ‘cultivated variety’ that does not perpetuate naturally like other varieties do. Most cultivars propagate by cloning. (Variety and cultivar names are capitalized and enclosed within single quotation marks.)

For example, Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ is a cultivar of red maple. It exhibits a distinctly rounded canopy and foliar color in autumn that is superior to that of the simple species in the wild. It might compare to a Buick Skylark Gran Sport, which is essentially a cultivar of Skylark with a stronger engine. Botanical and automotive nomenclature are quite similar. 

Such similarities of nomenclature are no advantage. While cars forfeited their distinctive titles for mundane numeric designations, plants forfeited their species names for cultivar names. Such abbreviation of nomenclature interferes with accurate identification. Those unfamiliar with it may not know if Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ is an Eastern or Western redbud, or something else.

Horridculture – Dried Plums?

Dried prunes are experiencing something of an identity crisis.

Nomenclature used to be more predictably standardized than it is now. When I write about how it works, I compare it to the names of cars. For example, ‘General Motors’ is just a family. ‘Buick’ is a genus. ‘Electra’ is a species. ‘Limited’ is a variety. Well, my Sebring was labeled as a Chyrsler but made by Mercedes Benz. Modern horticultural nomenclature is no more accurate.

With all the promiscuity going on nowadays, it is impossible to know who the parent of some of our favorite plants are. Many are interspecific hybrids. Some are intergeneric hybrids. Some are so complicated that their species names are merely omitted; and no one seems to notice! That is like driving a Mercury LS without knowing or caring if it is a Grand Marquis or a Lynx.

So, now we can grow such aberrations of traditional stone fruit as as aprium, apriplum, pluot, plumcot, nectaplum, pluerry and peacotum. The first half of the names supposedly indicate who the promiscuous maternal parent is. The second half refers to the male pollinator. Parents who contributed fewer letters to the name were supposedly already hybridized prior to breeding.

For example, an apricot pollinated by a plum creates an aprium; and an aprium pollinated by a plum creates an apriplum. The apriplum gets an extra letter from plum ancestry because it is %75 plum and %25 apricot. A plum pollinated by an apricot creates a pluot; and a plum pollinated by a pluot creates a plumcot. There are, of course, many other complicating combinations.

Sure, the resulting fruit is very good; but is it any better than what it was bred from? If everyone could have tasted the simple, traditional and exemplary stone fruits that formerly grew in the vast orchards of the Santa Clara Valley, there would be no need for all this hooey. Besides, why is there all this interest in creating new and weird fruit while eliminating some of the old?

Prunes and plums, as I explained earlier, are two distinct types of fruits. Japanese plums are the richly flavored and typically more brightly colored fruits that were more popular in home gardens than in orchards, since they are not easy to transport. European prunes are the sweeter but mildly flavored freestone fruits that grew in orchards, generally for drying and canning.

Apparently, the name of ‘prunes’ was not appealing enough . . . or was actually considered to be unappealing. Almost twenty years ago, prunes were consequently reclassified as plums. Dried prunes are now known as dried plums, as if they are dried versions of the classic ‘Santa Rosa’ plums that so many of us grow in our home gardens. Some of them just might be! Who knows?!

Plum juice could be extracted from Japanese plums, which actually make excellently rich juice, but is more likely from fresh (not dried) French or Italian prunes. However, there is still such a beverage that is known as prune juice. It is extracted from, of all things, rehydrated dried plums . . . or dried prunes. These unfortunate fruits get dehydrated, rehydrated, and then juiced!

The juice of rehydraded dehydrated plums or prunes might be the only remaining application of the word ‘prune’. At least it is useful for that; in the sense that it designates the source of the juice as rehydrated dehydrated fruit of some sort, rather than fresh fruit of some sort. Whether such fruit is a plum or what was formerly known as a prune remains something of a mystery.

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.