When it comes to the garden, what's in a name?
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When it comes to the garden, what's in a name?

I STARTED out to write on how to preserve the blooms of Hydrangea ‘Annabel’ (for indoor winter decoration) but an email from a reader in Westport had me change tack.

His concern related to my naming plants in botanical Latin, rather than using local and colloquial names.

In his words, “why don’t I make more use of common plant names in my weekly writing?”. This is not an unusual query.

Pre Covid, when I would aim to visit as many summer Open Garden events as possible, people would often amble up to enquire about a specimen they had seen, respectfully asking to be made familiar with its name.

Having fulfilled their request (when I could mind you) they usually hesitated for a moment and then pushed on to ask if there was an 'ordinary' name, something easier to remember.

Newcomers to gardening argue that identification would be easier if common plant names were used.

They point out also, that ’colloquial names’ are usually full of a rich and evocative language, mostly expressed in local or regional accents. I agree.

“Why” they continue, “is 'Piss-a-bed' not used instead of Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), 'Coltsfoot' used instead of Tussilago farfara, or 'Cleavers' instead of Burdock (Arctium lappa)?”

There's nothing wrong when these common names are used but be assured that Coltsfoot, to give just one example, will be known by that name in some counties, but 'spunk' in others, and 'The Graveyard Weed' or 'Rat's Leaves' in more.
The appeal for common names is understandable and snobbery has nothing to do with using botanical Latin.

But vernacular names will never be as good or as valid as botanical nomenclature, for the latter will usually tell you something about the plant, whereas the vernacular will not.

It is easy then to understand that Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis) is not a lily; Rose of Sharon (Hypericum) is not a rose, and a Mock Orange (Philadelphus) is not related to citrus fruits.

Very often the Latin name can be (a) pleasant sounding, (b) descriptive of the plant's special qualities, (c) evocative of the plant's history and (d) always exact and precise.
So where does all this leave you, the gardener?

I suspect most will continue to master the difficulties of nomenclature but in doing so, bear in mind that the more you learn the more rewarding and informative the returns.

And as to pronunciation, there will always be differences of opinion so keep listening and practising and your confidence will grow.

Whether you speak with a flat southern accent or a broad northern dialect the words will sound very much the same, in fact, they will sound remarkably similar.