I KNEW I WAS IN TROUBLE when the leader of a visiting tour group said, “You aren’t going to use those Latin names, are you?” “Not if you’re willing to help me make up common names as we go along,” I replied. “Common names have only been made up for common plants. You already use Latin names, but you just don’t realize it: Impatiens, Lantana, Iris, Veronica, Canna, and Hosta are all Latin names,” I continued. These names don’t seem to bother anyone, but many gardeners have convinced themselves that all Latin names are beyond their ability to learn or pronounce. I’ve always found that if a gardener is too lazy to learn plant names, he’s usually too lazy to do a good job growing the plants themselves.
Many years ago in a town far, far away, a fellow named Linnaeus decided we needed a more standard worldwide system to communicate about plants. He called it the binomial nomenclature system, and it was good. Every plant was given a Latin name consisting of a first and last name—sort of like people, except that plants put their last name first and their first name last. Plant names are actually quite simple. The first name is the genus (always capitalized), while the second is the species (lowercase). These Latin names are usually descriptive of a place, person, plant habitat, or characteristic of the plant.
Then came horticulture, and it was also good. Horticulturists are different from taxonomists in that they can grow live plants but usually can’t identify them. As horticulturists began to make selections of species and hybrids between species, taxonomists saw the need for a third name called a cultivar (short for cultivated variety), which is always capitalized and written within single quotes. All of these rules are published in a small book called the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. It’s great bedtime reading if you’re alone, bored, and can’t sleep.
Binomial names (genus and species) can only be created by learned folks who write in technical botanical jargon and then find an obscure botanical journal in which to publish the new plant name. If a taxonomist publishes a name that another taxonomist doesn’t like, the latter writes a rebuttal article making the first author look like an idiot. Cultivar names, however, can be given by anyone who has created, found, or selected a new plant. Unfortunately, the binomial plant names are often less stable than we would like. Just like people, plants change their names too.
For nurseryman Tony Avent, nomenclature too often turns into nomenclutter
There are several reasons behind the seeming madness of plant name changing. First of all, a plant may have been misidentified originally and the change is simply a correction. Second, a taxonomist may discover that someone previously published a name for the plant that differs from the currently accepted name. According to the nomenclature code, the first properly published name takes precedence. Third, name changes can come from two splinter groups of taxonomists—the lumpers and the splitters. Lumpers believe that a species range is large, and that many different-looking individual plants can comprise a single species. Splitters, on the other hand, believe that each minute difference warrants making up a new species. Nature, not being one to always cater to our wishes, has not provided clear dividing lines, which makes the taxonomists’ task often one of guesswork and opinion. The new field of genetic fingerprinting promises to have a dramatic impact on the field of taxonomy, and promises a plethora of name changes in the years to come.
To top it all off, some gardeners, nurserymen, and marketing folks are either ignorant of the rules or choose to ignore them. The bedding-plant industry has completely ignored the cultivar naming rules and garden writers have allowed them to get away with it. The nursery marketing folks have decided to trademark cultivar names so that no one else can use them, which, fortunately, is neither allowed nor enforceable. Too many folks are circumventing the rules for their own benefit, not realizing that in doing so they compromise our only stable means of communication about plants.
Interestingly, the most discussed part of nomenclature is pronunciation. No one seems concerned if the naming rules are followed, but it drives people nuts if you pronounce it wrong. Geez, folks, Latin is a dead language. Let’s worry about getting the names right, and as long as you can communicate, pick something more important to fight about. H