Friday, June 23, 2006

The name of the lily

Many find their use pretentious, but there is a reason for latin botanical names. They make it very clear exactly which plant you are talking about. I started using the latin names almost exclusively about a year ago. For me, it cleared up the confusion. And it still does. Perhaps this is the influence of Sister Leonarda from my 8th grade latin class.

Here are my common/latin name pet peeves:

True lilies and daylilies are very different. Let’s acknowledge that by using the correct names for each. I too often hear daylilies referred to as lilies. It’s like confusing double impatiens with roses. They are completely different plants. Then there are the other misuses of “lily,” like calla lily, canna lily and trout lily.

Many use the name cranesbill for true (perennial) geraniums, but it is still vexing. And, again, the two plant families are very different. Too bad we insist on the confusion. I love both species, but they have very different uses and culture requirements.

Honestly, I don’t mean to sound pedantic. But I do feel these and many other name variations in garden plants create real confusion, particularly for novice gardeners. Of course, it doesn't help that plants are often reclassified. Yet, it's all we've got.

Latin? Not a dead language, as far as gardening is concerned.


trey said...

Yes, I couldn’t agree more! I was just thinking the other day about Latin names, and why they are important, so when I saw your post I had to respond.

The advice we get from nursery trade magazines these days is to keep it simple for the gardener. We are told that using botanical names for plants will make the customer feel intimidated and talked down to. Use common names to make the customer feel comfortable, we are told.

You don't need to know the Latin names of plants to enjoy gardening, but it is nice to learn something about Latin names for the reasons you stressed. We don't over use Latin names here when talking to the customer, but we don't hide from them. Our plant signs have the common and Latin names on them. When I write an article for the paper, I always try to use the common names with the Latin names.

The trend to use only common names is an attempt to appeal to the mass audience, which apparently needs to have things made simple for them. We are a smaller garden center appealing to a smaller, more gardening astute crowd. They, and we, want the Latin names to help prevent confusion.

Is it creeping zinnia or Sanvitalia procumbens.
Want a tulip tree? Magnolia soulangiana or Liriodendron? Want a Redwood tree? Sequoia sempervirens or Sequoia gigantea?

Latin is necessary in our trade, and besides its kind of fun.

LostRoses said...

I used to love knowing and using the Latin names for plants. As I get older though, I can't remember either the Latin name OR the common name! By the way, many British gardening books refer to plants by their Latin names only.

M Sinclair Stevens (Austin) said...

Yay for Latin!

I had exactly the problem with tulip trees that Trey points out. I was writing about our southern magnolias and Kathy of Cold Climate Gardening commented it didn't look anything like her northern liriodendron.

We have more lily confusion down south with our oxblood lilies (Rhodophiala bifida) and rainlilies (Zephyranthes).

Then to really mix things up we have red spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) which are neither a true lily, nor a spider lily (Hymenocallis).

Amy Stewart said...

Did you see what you started over at Garden Gekko? You're bringing the booze!

EAL said...

Of course. I am so pleased. Besides promoting alcohol consumption, my main purpose here is to cause controversy. I knew that bringing up Latin names would suit the purpose admirably.

lispet said...

Absolutely! I've worked in a garden centre for six years now, and I can't tell you how many times I've gone through the old "and what did the Elephant Ears you saw look like?" drill. There's gotta be ten different varieties that go by that name, if not more!

Having said this, I believe that common names have their place. Common names are romantic and speak of simpler times when people named plants based on their relationship with these sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful, sometimes beautiful miracles. I understand their appeal. After all, what Victorian or Edwardian novel would complete without descriptions of Larkspur, Foxglove, Marigolds and Forget-me-nots? Delphinium, Digitalis, Tagetes and Myosotis, while beautiful in their own right, simply do not have the same ring.