What's in a Name?

What's in a name?

Latin names seem eternal—a solid foundation for keeping the myriad of plant species neatly organized. But even Latin lovers are running into roadblocks with their chosen language. Latin names are changing. Each and every species of plant has a Latin name, registered for that species only and accepted worldwide as its sole official name. In the world of plant nomenclature, Latin is king. But even this venerated standard is subject to change.

The Name Game

Anyone who has purchased an herbaceous perennial or a woody shrub has undoubtedly noticed the dual name system on the tag. The first, and often dominant, name is the common name: “sugar maple,” for example. The Latin name, in this case Acer saccharum, accompanies the common name and helps to avoid confusion on exactly which species is being taken home to be planted.

Over time, many perennial gardeners have dropped common names in favour of the more accurate and erudite Latin. While Latin names are more accurate for identifying particular plant species, a touch of exclusivity cannot be denied. After all, which gardener sounds more learned—the one who grows pigsqueak, or the one who cultivates bergenia?

Both common and Latin plant names serve a purpose. Common names may reflect local history and are often easier to pronounce and remember. Latin names, on the other hand, can’t be beat for pinpointing a plant species—at least, most of the time. But even the high standard of Latin isn’t immune to amendment.

Changing Times, Changing Names

Thanks in part to molecular biology and DNA analysis, even Latin names, once almost written in stone, are being modified. Take the chrysanthemum. Once the species was placed under rigorous scrutiny at the molecular level, it was found that the chrysanthemum is more accurately divided into eight separate genera: Leucanthemum, tanacetum and dendranthema are three of the most common. The common greenhouse chrysanthemum was Chrysanthemum morifolium; now, it’s Dendranthema x grandiflorum. The common oxeye daisy was once known as Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, but now it’s Leucanthemum vulgare.

By Any Other Name…

Such changes to Latin nomenclature do not come about only because of better DNA analysis. Intensive crossbreeding of plants results in new cultivars that require new Latin names.

For example, plants such as roses, which lend themselves well to crossbreeding, create difficulty for plant taxonomists. There are about 150 species of roses worldwide, but only seven species have contributed to the modern rose. Thousands of varieties have resulted from a multitude of crosses between these species. As a result, the lines between rose species have become somewhat blurred.

The Latin Lovers

Gardeners who use Latin shouldn’t get too excited over all these changes. Regardless of whether we call a plant a pigsqueak, bergenia or even Elephant-ears, the name has no effect on its beauty.