Friday, February 04, 2011

A Rose is still a Rose…

Despite the fact that I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about Thoughtful Gardening by Robin Lane Fox, it has provided me with a few thoughtful moments. Among them, thoughts on the use of scientific plant names. Or more correctly - the people that use scientific plant names.

Over the years I’ve worked with many of the most knowledgeable plant experts in Texas and the US. The ability of some of these individuals to rattle off the scientific name of just about any plant is impressive - and frankly – just a little irritating.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been one to commit plant names to memory. I mean, I know several common species and enough to communicate the basics but I am definitely not a walking encyclopedia of plant names. I’m much better at describing a plant by its appearance or performance in the landscape than I am at reciting its Latin genus and specific epithet.

Carl Linnaeus father of Botanical Nomenclature
I recognize the value and importance of having a system of botanical nomenclature that provides a means of correctly identifying plant materials. After all, the plant I call Mexican Daisy may not be the same plant you refer to by the same name. That being said, the use of scientific plant names by some individuals becomes somewhat pedantic. That is to say that the ostentatious and excessive concern over minute details and formalisms of plant nomenclature can be downright aggravating.

Need an example or 2? Gladly.

EXAMPLE 1. A sales person at the local garden center provides an unsolicited primer on plant materials using Latin names for every plant in his/her department. They communicate this information in a manner that is both condescending and intimidating. Result – customer feels uncomfortable and often leaves for Walmart or Home Depot where they don’t have to deal with a “trained professional.” BTW – it’s been my experience that if a garden center relies too heavily on the use of scientific plants names to describe their inventory, prices are usually higher than I am willing to pay. Guess they may be charging by the syllable.

EXAMPLE 2. A speaker, giving a local garden talk, describes numerous plant materials using their Genus and specific epithet in a way that clearly demonstrates their superior knowledge of plant names. Problem – most of the plants discussed aren’t adapted to the area and don’t stand a chance of surviving in the landscape. Often an indication that the speaker has committed much more time to studying plant identification than to actually gardening.

I could go on here but hopefully you get the point…

So where do you draw the line? When is it appropriate to use names like Caesalpinia pulcherrima (Pride of Barbados) or Ilex vomitoria ( Yaupon) instead of a common name? Here are a few exceptions to “my” rules for using scientific plant names.

In a plant materials class or were plant materials are being studied (i.e. a Master Gardener class or something similar).

When it’s absolutely necessary to distinguish one plant from another (i.e. referring to landscape plans, or ordering plants on-line, etc.).

When there’s something interesting about the Latin name that might actually help us remember/appreciate the nomenclature. (i.e. vomitoria refers to the use of yaupon leaves to cause vomiting – now that’s useful info…).

When among a group of peers where there is a common knowledge of botanical nomenclature (i.e. a gathering of plant geeks where participants can impress one another).

In the end it’s worth remembering that as we walk through the garden we’re all looking at the same plants – and to quote William Shakespeare ‘A rose by any other name is still a rose’.

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