Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
October, 2007
Regional Report

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We have Carolus Linnaeus to thank for our universal system of naming plants.

Happy Birthday, Carolus Linneaus

To me, the scrawny, scraggly geraniums and plantains in Philadelphia's Franklin D. Roosevelt Park were weeds seeded here and there among noteworthy trees and shrubs. To Ernie Schuyler of the Wagner Institute, these nondescript plants are a living connection to the past -- to the 1700s when Carl Linneaus renamed living things in tongue-twisting Latin.

This year commemorates the 300th birthday of Swedish scientist Carolus Linneaus, who created the universal labeling/classification system for plants, animals, and minerals. By 1763, he had named 4,400 animals and 7,700 plants. Linneaus actually built his system on scores of works and studies by Greek, Roman, French, German, and Italian scientists, scholars, and herbalists dating back to Plato. Before Linneaus systematized the information, the same plants and animals had different names in different languages. Names even changed from village to village, which was quite confusing.

Though today many of us can be daunted by accurate, multi-syllabic Latin plant names, Linneaus actually did the world a favor. He made it possible for someone from Baltimore to know what a Berliner meant when referring to hosta, echinacea, or acer. A dawn redwood tree (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is called a Metasequoia in China, Slovenia, and North America. Even if we Americans don't know how to say dawn redwood in Chinese or Slovene, we can still ask where to admire or buy a Metasequoia when traveling worldwide.

Linneaus organized and classified plants by their sex characteristics -- their male and female flower parts. In his Species Plantarum, Linneaus ordered the world's flora into a hierarchy of categories we universally share: Class, Order, Genus, Species, Variety.

Practical Application
My assistant and I both enjoy learning the garden's Latin. And we're not above friendly competition. Bri is quick with genus and species names for native perennials, shrubs, trees, and grasses. I rely heavily on popular ornamental herbaceous and woody plants recalled from college courses, plant catalogs, and nursery stock.

This week while tidying a suburban garden, I clipped off a few very low-hanging branches dripping with clusters of bright red berries and scarlet/yellow/orange leaves. "What's that?" Bri asked from across the yard. "Aronia," I shouted, naming the deciduous tree's genus. "Oh, chokeberry" (its common name), Bri countered. More specifically, it was native red chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia, in the rose (Rosaceae) family. The category of "family" is a post-Linneaus addition that falls between order and genus.

Some moments I stumble. "How many Baptisia did we plant?" I ask. "Two Amsonia hubrichtii," Bri gently corrects. That's the fluffy, native bluestar covered in five-petal, pale blue flowers in May and June. Come autumn, the feathery foliage turns golden yellow.

Accurate species is important when planning, planting, and buying. For example, my first year as a gardener, I asked the nursery for five hellebores. I assumed they'd be the dainty Lenten Rose, a.k.a. white, rose, pink/purple-flowered H. orientalis. I hurriedly planted them, then checked the tags and found they were Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius), a coarse, shrubby nursery leftover with green flowers. Not what my client or I wanted. I replaced them at my cost. Lesson learned.

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