Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's In A Name?

Do people name their babies after flowers or are flowers named after people? The answers are yes and yes.

Even if they are another generation, we all know a Rose, Iris, Petunia, Sharon, Camellia, Cloris, Daisy, Lily, Flora, Heather, Violet, Jasmine, and who could forget Ruby Begonia and Hyacinth Bucket.

On the other hand, plants are often named after the person who discovered them or a noted herbalist, botanists, and benefactor.

To confuse matters, plants have the Latin botanical name and often many generic/common names. The common names are often different in different parts of the world, leave room for error and may be another plant altogether.

The Latin names will often be comprised of several different descriptive pieces. The scientific names of plants are Latin because that was the language of scholarship when they began describing plants during the Renaissance period.

As an example, I’ll use something near and dear to this area: Dwarf Red Oak tree.

First, all plants belong to a genus. The genus for oaks is Quercus and no other plant genus shares that name. If you see the word Quercus in the description of a plant, it’s an oak.

Latin plant names are generally comprised of two separate names. The generic name is listed first and it’s capitalized. It defines the group to which a plant belongs.

The species name is listed second and is not capitalized. The name of the red oak species is Quercus rubra.

When a plant is called a variety it’s because it’s the same Quercus but may have differences such as flower color or leaf shape.

The variety is typically capitalized and the third word and it’s enclosed in quotation marks. If it is listed Quercus rubra “Aurea” then it is a red oak variety with bright yellow young leaves.

The variant species which are created by gardeners and hybridizers are called cultivars. These are not Latin names. Cultivar names are also capitalized and enclosed in single quotation marks and in this case it would be "Dwarf".

In conclusion: “Dwarf” Quercus rubra “Aurea”

Variant = cultivar = “Dwarf”
Genus = Quercus = Generic Name = Oak
Species = rubra = Red
Variety = “Aurea”

Why should this make any difference for your garden? Knowing exactly what you’re purchasing may save money from mistakes. Most nurseries have detailed Latin and variety names on every plant. Understanding exactly what you’re getting helps you have the right plant, for the right spot, and for the right reason.


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