Why are Botanical Names important?

Latin is a beautiful and painful solution when it comes to identifying plants. On one hand, it can entirely encompass the exact plant with the exact traits you are looking for. But it is also above most people’s “who gives a crap” level. A maple is a maple… well, not really.

When you see the Latin botanical name the first terms have to do with its distinction, or the genus. I think people can understand the genus because there is a larger margin of difference from genus to genus. For example, Maples versus Pines (Acer versus Pinus in the Latin) is the genus. But break it down even further and there are many differences among members of the same genus (Maples) and differences from the species (or Norway Maples). This is what Latin names do. They describe the plant in some way. The longer the name, the more features it is describing. Example… Columnar Norway Maple, Acer platanoides ‘columnare’. The first name is the genus, the second is the species, and third is cultivar. You can have a maple tree, but unless it says platanoides then it is not a Norway Maple. And you can have a Norway Maple but unless it has columnare then it’s not a skinny tall maple.  It’s a common tree but it is distinctly different from the plain old Norway maple due to the columnar. Columnar is Latin for column.  Platanoides is describing the flat disc shaped seed pod inside the helicopter shell. And acer literally means eager in Latin. So, when we are saying the Latin name we are saying that tree is the eager, flat disc shaped seed pod, skinny tall-shaped Maple. Or Acer platanoides ‘Columnare’ or Columnare Norway Maple. You are basically saying the same thing with all three.

This is an example of a botanical name versus common name. If you need to be exact, then use botanical names. Common names are tricky because everybody could have a different name for the same plant. Let’s switch to a perennial flower. “Forget me not” is a common name for Myosotis arvensis. But you could also call it mouse’s ear or Scorpion grass. These common names could describe one species or the entire genus. There are 74 unique species in the genus Myosotis. That is not even getting into if these species have cultivars. Using the name “forget me not” on all 74 species is not wrong, but it is not totally correct either. Most likely not all of the 74 are commercially available to have in your landscape so you would have to choose between them in a store. Then if it is similar to a genus it can be lopped in with that group.  Like Brunnera macrophylla is one of my favorite plants and its common name is perennial “forget me not.” Not related at all but because it has a similar blue flower it gets the name. My personal common name for it is just Brunnera so I’m not super strict. But when people go deeper with botanical names they’re not trying to be… how do I put this gently… douchey? They just what to be clear. Most of them understand that a lot of people really don’t care about the names that much and will not throw it in your face that you might not know what that specific cultivare is. If they do, then they really are douches. 

 

 P.S.

Perennial just mean lives longer than two growing seasons. It could be three seasons or 100 seasons. Annual is one growing season. Annuals typically do not make it through the winter months. Bi-annual is two growing seasons. First season it is storing energy. We call that a vegetative state. The second year is a reproductive state. After it reproduces, it dies putting all its energy in for the next generation. These three terms are so confusing for people. Don’t overthink it.  Have fun, try new plants in your garden, and remember to Plant on Babylon!