What's in a Name?

What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes…

In the well-known play by Shakespeare, young Juliet gives her opinion that a name doesn’t matter. Her opinion matches that of many people who are beginning to learn about gardening. Why do we need to learn all those stupid Latin names for plants?

But thirteen-year-old Juliet turns out to be a little naïve, and as the play develops, the names of Montague and Capulet turn out to be a matter of life and death for Romeo, Juliet, and their young friends.

Rose at GFE.

Rose at GFE.

While not nearly so dramatic, the names of plants turn out to be important also. So you want a sage in your garden. Do you want one that is eight feet tall and drought tolerant with bright red winter flowers? Or do you want a plant that stays four inches tall, likes shade and moist soil, rewarding you with blue summer flowers? Or do you mean the culinary herb that is used in Tuscan bean soup, Salvia officinalis? Or do you mean the silvery-leaved foliage plants whose common names include the word “sage” like sandhill sage or big sagebrush, which are not salvias at all but rather Artemesia with tiny daisy-type flowers?

One of the foundation plants of the border at GFE is Copper Canyon daisy, Tagetes lemmonii. For years, I called this plant Mexican marigold, having learned that (wrong) common name from another gardener. When I went to buy some more of these plants at the nursery, and asked for Mexican marigold, I was shown to a bench with a completely different type of plant, the annual marigolds that are familiar old-fashioned garden plants. These plants would last less than a week in our borders at GFE. They are a favorite appetizer for snails and slugs, need constantly moist soil, hotter days than we can offer, rich garden soil, and lots of TLC to reach their ultimate 12 inch size. They bloom beautifully and then die, like any good annual. 

Copper Canyon daisy ( Tagetes lemmonii ) at GFE.

Copper Canyon daisy (Tagetes lemmonii) at GFE.

The plant I was looking for, by contrast, is tough as nails, grows six feet tall or taller, thrives on poor dry soil, isn’t picky about heat and fog, and will probably be going gangbusters in our border after we are long gone, blooming prolifically year after year without the least fuss.

The two plants have similar looking foliage, and in a four-inch pot, it wouldn’t be hard to mistake one for the other. Since I had the name wrong, it was a good thing I knew the plant I wanted very well (it has a distinctive smell) and I knew right away that I wouldn’t buy the plants labeled “Marigold.” Instead I went to the reference desk, looked up my plant, and then armed with the right name, went back out in the nursery and found what I wanted.

The scientific names of plants, like those of other living things, are Latin words.  The first word indicates the genus of the plant, and the second word indicates the species. Most of the Latin words turn out to be simple descriptions of the plant. These descriptions are often very commonplace when translated such as Pittosporum (sticky seed) or Coprosma (manure smell). Sometimes the Latin name includes the name of a person, such as the person who first classified the plant, or the name of someone they wished to honor, such as the rose “Lady Banks” which is named for a person. These names always make me imagine stories, adventuresome or romantic, and wonder who that person was and why, when their contemporaries are long forgotten, we still discuss them every year in the garden.

Shasta daisy at GFE.

Shasta daisy at GFE.

The last part of the plant name, if it appears in apostrophes, means something quite different. Ceanothus ‘Diamond Heights’ for example, is not a species, but rather a specific plant that was either discovered or hybridized intentionally. This plant is propagated not by seeds, in which case each individual plant would have its own unique genetic make-up, but by cuttings or some other type of asexual propagation. As a result, each plant you buy with that apostrophized name is genetically identical to the original, and will perform exactly the same under the same conditions. Ceanothus ‘Diamond Heights’ for example is a cultivar of California lilac which has variegated green and yellow leaves unlike the pure green leaves of most Ceanothus, and which is happy to grow in some shade, unlike most Ceanothus which prefer full sun.

Here at GFE we are in the middle of an enormous project of creating a database which will allow visitors to the garden to look up the name of most plants in the garden. This huge project would not have been possible without the determined efforts and expenditure of time of one of our committed volunteers, Christophe Kreis. Each garden bed will be assigned a number, and soon an up-to-date list of plants currently growing in that bed will be available on our website. Many of the plants will also have photographs available, so if you want to plant a Copper Canyon daisy after reading about it in this article, you will be able to go to the garden and find one growing. That way you can find out what the plant actually looks like, and what you’re going to have when the plant is mature.

Romeo and Juliet learned that a name may make a tremendous difference in the outcome. The same is true for gardeners, and it is worth the effort the learn the right names for the plants you buy, or grow from seeds or cuttings from friends and neighbors.