Common and Botanical Names

12 Sep

Here is a fun and interesting article on common and botanical names, from Paul at Berkeley Horticultural Nursery. If you would like to subscribe to the Berkeley Hort. website, go here: They are a wonderful local nursery and offer interesting information and suggestions on a regular basis.

I’m reprinting the article in its entirity:

Common names have intrigued me for years. In school I learned to use scientific names in order to avoid confusion, and to align my research to a common system understood by all scientists. But they have limited value in everyday conversation. Why, for instance at a family gathering, would I tell my bird-loving cousin I had seen a Turdus migratorius in her garden when I could simply say I saw a ‘Robin’? And, just as birds are categorized for convenient discussion, so are plants.

18th century Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus set forth the rules for botanical nomenclature, which are still used for plant ID in this nursery. It involves a binomial system, Genus + species, for categorizing plants based on the structure of their flower parts. What makes this system so important to us at Berkeley Hort is that we can immediately narrow the field of possibilities to a single species or variety. How often I recall being approached by the shopper asking for ‘Mock Orange’, only to wonder whether they meanPhiladelphusChoisya, or Pittosporum.

Since botanical names can be formidable, we are often reluctant to attempt their pronunciation, relying instead on the more familiar vernacular. Many cultures have no need for taxonomic dogma, depending entirely on local names passed down from one generation to the next. On a global scale, it would seem that the British have had the most influence on common usage, undoubtedly due to that country’s deep history in, and enthusiasm for gardening, coupled with prolific writers in the genre.

What one calls a plant can be a matter of controversy. Some names are cute (‘Biddy–Biddy’), some descriptive (‘Snow-in-Summer’) and some use derogatory terms for people (not here). Often-used suffixes include -bane, -berry, and a multitude of -worts. My wife found that the European succulent, Sempervivum tectorum is relatively easy to grow, and with its myriad variations and color forms, worthy of collecting. Long ago it was planted on rooftops to reduce risk of house fires caused by lightning strikes. ‘Houseleeks’, ‘Hens & Chicks’, and ‘Live Forever’ are common names I had heard for these plants. Imagine my surprise when, thumbing through an English gardening journal I came across a reference to it as ‘Welcome-Home-Husband-Though-Never-so-Drunk’. Look below to see some of my favorite common names.


Lesser-known common names (amuse your friends, frustrate our staff)

Hurt Sickle Centaurea cyanus
Wonga-Wonga Pandorea pandorana
Bunya-Bunya Araucaria bidwillii
Chupachupa Eccremocarpus scaber
Cow-Itch Lagunaria patersonii
Busy Lizzie Impatiens wallerana
Stinking Benjamin Trillium grandiflorum
Obedient Plant Physostegia virginiana
May-Blob Caltha palustris
Unkempt Boy Neoporteria heterophylla
Squirting Cucumber Ecballium elaterium
Gingham Golf-Ball Euphorbia obesa
Drunkard’s Dream Hatiora salicornioides
Hug-me-Tight Ficus pumila
Lurk-in-the-Ditch Mentha pulegium
Peace-in-the-Home Soleirolia soleirolii
Snottygobble Persoonia longifolia
Dead-rat Tree Adamsonia digitata
Corpse Plant Monotropa uniflora
Bloody-Butcher Trillium recurvatum
Match-me-if-you-can Acalypha wilkesiana
Dog Hobble Leucothoe fontanesiana

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