Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
October, 2010
Regional Report

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Endless Summer ? hydrangea aka Hydrangea macrophylla 'Bailmer' is still in bloom in my October garden.

What's in a Name?

You may say "po-TAY-to" and I may say "po-TAH-to", but someone else might call it Solanum tuberosum 'Yukon Gold.' What's with all these different names? Plants can go under a variety of monikers and it's helpful to understand where the various names come from and what they mean.

Let's start with common names. Everybody is familiar with them, but unfortunately, not everyone is familiar with the same common name for the same plant. For example, to many gardeners, snow-on-the-mountain refers to an annual plant, Euphorbia marginata, with white-edged, gray-green leaves. But others, including my grandmother from whom I learned it, use this same name for the variegated perennial groundcover Aegopodium podagraria 'Variegatum,' which also travels under the names bishop's weed and goutweed. Which brings up another source of confusion- frequently the same plant has acquired more than one common name. Vinca minor can be periwinkle or myrtle; obedient plant and false dragonhead both refer to the perennial Physostegia.

Using the Latin name (also referred to as the scientific or botanical name) for a plant can help clear up the confusion, at least most of the time. Each specific type of plant has a unique, two or three part name. Let's go back to our potato of the first paragraph. Solanum is the genus name. The genus name applies to a group of related species that share certain characteristics. So eggplants, which are related to potatoes, are also in the genus Solanum.

The second part of the Latin name is called the "specific epithet" and applies to the particular plant. So potatoes are Solanum tuberosum and eggplants are Solanum melongena. The two names together designate the plant "species." On occasion there may be further divisions into subspecies, botanical variety or forma.

Lots of people shy away from using Latin names because they are unsure how to pronounce them, and admittedly there are some doozies . Even I don't have a clue how to say Matteuccia struthiopteris- I'll stick to ostrich fern! But most aren't that daunting if you simply sound them out. And gardeners have learned to easily use the many that double as common names- think of Delphinium, Iris, Sedum and Hosta.

But what about the 'Yukon Gold' in our potato example? This is the "cultivar" name, which follows the species name in single quotes. Cultivar refers to a "cultivated variety" of a species that has been deliberately selected for one or more specific, desirable characteristics that are retained when the plant is properly propagated. Cultivars, which originate through selection by humans, are distinguished from naturally occurring botanical varieties. However, the general term "variety" is often loosely used when "cultivar" is the more accurate term. What all this means to a gardener is that all plants of a particular cultivar can be counted on to have the same unique set of characteristics. All 'Yukon Gold' potatoes will have yellow skin and flesh, whereas the cultivar 'Caribe' will produce white-fleshed potatoes with bluish-purple skins.

Sometimes, especially with ornamental plants, you'll see them called by yet another name, usually one with lots of marketing appeal. For example, you may see a popular hydrangea on sale at a local garden center called Endless Summer ®. But if you look at the fine print on the tag, you'll see the name Hydrangea macrophylla 'Bailmer.' (PP 15,298). The official cultivar name is 'Bailmer,' but the registered trademark name is the more marketable Endless Summer, while the numbers following the name indicate that the plant is patented. This means that for the next 20 years, only the patent holder can commercially propagate and sell the plant or license the rights to do so.

You may also see plants with the ™ symbol after a (marketable) name. Many plant sellers confuse the trademark name with the cultivar name, writing it after the species name in single quotes. So it's not uncommon to see the above hydrangea listed (incorrectly) as H. macrophylla 'Endless Summer'. There is a lot of confusion in the plant and legal worlds about exactly how the trademark and registered trademark symbols should be used and what rights they convey. See Name That Plant- The Misuse of Trademarks in Horticulture ( by Tony Avent of Plant Delight Nursery if you're interested in exploring this issue further. But as a consumer, it's mainly important just to realize that there may be a number of different ways of naming the same plant.

And finally, I said earlier that using Latin names for plants clears up confusion as to the actual identity of the plant most of the time. Unfortunately for gardeners who've learned their botanical Latin, plant taxonomists sometimes revise the long-used scientific names of plants for their own obscure (to me anyway!) reasons. The genus Cimicifuga has now become Actaea, for example, and many chrysanthemums have been scattered into various genera, including Leucanthemum and Argyranthemum. Sometimes both the genus and specific epithet change. Smooth aster, formerly Aster laevis, is now Symphyotrichum laeve. (Why does the new name always seem to be harder to spell and pronounce?) It can get tricky when you consult plant catalogs and other references; some get updated quickly, some continue to use the old names, so you need to be aware of both. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but if you're trying to find it in a catalog, it helps to know what it answers to!

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