Pop Quiz

– Posted in: Plant info

I like quizzes, games, and puzzles and hope you do too. Here’s one I made up. What do the following plants have in common: hosta, allium, phlox, crocus, magnolia, geranium, fuchsia, astilbe, clematis, anemone, gladiolus, hibiscus, iris, impatiens, begonia, canna, dahlia, forsythia, zinnia, petunia, cosmos, wisteria, hydrangea, delphinium, rhododendron? Click on “more” for the answer.

All of these plants are well known, popular, and easily recognized. I have many in my garden and would guess most of you have at least one, too. What sets them apart is they are best known by their botanical and latin names without referencing a “common name”. Take the last three plants: Hydrangea, Delphinium, and Rhododendron. These are not easy or intuitive names. It’s our familiarity that allows us to pronounce and spell them, although the silent “h” in Rhododendron used to trip me up long ago.

What prompted me thinking about this is a recent article by a local columnist. A common plant, a native, was being discussed. In a backhanded way, the author was making fun of its botanical name. I agree that it has a long and challenging name. Phonetically spelling its name and explaining why it was chosen for the plant would have been helpful but wasn’t offered. Here is a link to a pronunciation guide.

Plants are not given their names by whimsy, capriciousness, or to trip up anyone’s tongue. Some names are given as honorifics. Care to guess whom Washingtonia, Franklinia, and Jeffersonia – palms, a tree, and spring woodlanders – were named after? Others denote place of origin. Californica, idahoensis, missouriensis, and pensylvanicum are named after states. Japonica = Japan, sinensis and chinensis = China, nepalense = Nepal and taiwanense = Taiwan for countries in Asia. Kathy’s Colchicums can be included here, being named after ancient Colchis, an area on the Black Sea.

A name often describes a plant’s feature. The sizes, margins, shapes, colors, and surfaces of leaves and flowers all have specific words expressing an attribute. Names are sometimes given that show a physical relationship to other plants. Ones I have run across include references to the leaves (folia) of Alders = alnifolia, Birch = betulifolia, Horse Chestnut = aesculifolia, Elderberry = sambucifolia, and Elm = ulnifolia.

My favorite is a name that describes a plant’s growing environment, a real help for deciding placement in the garden or if I’m going to have success with it. Examples include: alpestris and alpicola = from mountains, palustris = from marshes, sylvestris = of woods, saxatillis = of rocks, montana = from mountains, glacialis = from cold areas, and arenaria = from sandy places.

Plants are occasionally renamed based on rules that can be found here. I gnash my teeth when this happens, as the changes discourage the names from common usage. Cimicifuga is now Actaea and Solenostemon has replaced Coleus. Most American species of Asters have been shuffled into Almutaster, Canadanthus, Doellingeria, Eucephalus, Eurybia, Ionactis, Oligoneuron, Oreostemma, and Sericocarpus with new alternate spellings for some species. Many of the commonly grown garden Asters are now in Symphyotrichum. I’m having a hard time changing.

I usually memorize all of my plants’ botanical names – I am such a plant nerd – but there are some that I prefer the common name to the latin. Snapdragon, Hollyhock, and Daffodil come immediately to mind. And even I think horticulturalists who insist on using Lilium, Rosa, and Tulipa are being picky.

Bonus: If you aren’t completely bored and have the time, visit this page. Why are the zoologists having more fun than the botanists?

About the Author

I started in 1977 growing plants at wholesale nurseries and a wholesale seed company in California. In 1992 I started volunteering (in the nursery, of course!) at Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco where I met my wife. My wife is originally from upstate and we moved here in 2002. It took at least two years of living here for me to fully understand our property and to take advantage and work with our microclimate. Although growing zone maps show us to be in 5, we are realistically a 4b. I am inordinately proud, in a smarmy kind of way, of how many of the plants we brought with us have thrived. Coming from a zone 9 has been quite an adjustment for all of us. But we are thriving and enjoy the beauty and what the land gives us everyday. USDA Hardiness Zone: 4b/5a Location: rural; Central Leatherstocking near Cooperstown, New York Geographic type: riverine valley Soil type: Chenango alluvial – shallow clay and highly stony Experience level: 28 years professionally wholesale and retail, no longer in the business Particular interests: native plants and ecosystems, flowering and berry producing shrubs, home-grown foods, maples, birches, willows, ornamental grasses, filipendulas, iris, ligularias, persicarias, asclepias, artemisia, asters, arisaemas, hardy geraniums, euphorbias, eupatoriums, origanums, lysimachias, eryngiums, lilies, and visiting nurseries

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

David May 24, 2008, 12:22 pm

Very interesting post. You mentioned the fuchsia in your initial listing of names. It’s often mis-spelled as fushia, fuschia and even fewshia. The easy way to remember it is by the origin of the name – Leonard Fuchs – although the plants were not found by him; it was a Father Charles Plumier who discovered a triphylla fuchsia in South America in 1703 and named it in honour of the German botanist. Thanks for a fascinating post (which I see is from two years ago, but of lasting interest).

Kim (Blackswamp_Girl) November 8, 2006, 7:41 pm

Oh darn… when I read your post this afternoon, Annie, I thought: “Variegated Garlic Chives? I already grow garlic chives here… hmm!” 🙂 I will check out the other, though, too.

Annie in Austin November 8, 2006, 7:25 pm

Craig, in your note you mention Society Garlic, Tulbaghia violacea – I’ll bet that what I thought was a variegated Garlic chive, Allium tuberosum, is actually a variegated Society Garlic. It also gives off the garlic fragrance when bumped, but when I look closely, the leaves don’t have the same flatness. Thanks for catching this error. It’s zone 7, so I don’t think it will grow in Ohio under either name – sorry Kim!


Annie in Austin November 8, 2006, 11:29 am

Oh, Craig- you’re making me miss my Illinois anemones! I had no idea what a pain they were for the person seeding them in a nursery. My Anemone tomentosa ‘Robustissima’ grew in huge, long-flowering clumps, and Anemone sylvestris grew as a groundcover in semi-shade. I also had the small & charming, purple-flowered spring flower that’s sometimes called Anemone pulsatilla – my friends & I just called it Pulsatilla -never used the supposedly common name of Pasqueflower. Down here in Austin some people grow the tender bulbous Anemones outside with great success, but I haven’t tried them yet.

I had a flock of Astilbe, too – and MSS, I’ve seen them for sale at Austin nurseries, but haven’t seen them growing successfully in any Austin garden.

Kim, I grow several varieties of Allium tuberosum, the Garlic chives, but they’re only listed as hardy to zone 7, so might not be common in your nurseries. Some are variegated, with light green/cream stripes. The striped ones are used more as landscape accents, like an ornamental grass. The plain, flat green ones are for cooking. Mine will release a strong garlic scent if you just brush against them. They seed easily and are big passalong plants here.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

PS Craig, did your ‘inner plant nerd’ want to include coreopsis and euphorbias? Those came to my mind. Thirty years ago, sedum would have been obvious, too, but who knows what to call them anymore!

Craig Levy November 8, 2006, 10:43 am

Astilbe is a leafy member of the Saxifrage family, most closely resembling Goats Beard, Aruncus dioicus. Astilbe has a triangular shaped, twice compound leaf that can be shiny or dull, green or red-tinted. Plant sizes range from 6 inches to 5 feet, performing the neat trick of flowers and foliage always being in proportion. I’ve seen it growing in zone 10 but in your area it would need full shade and a lot of moisture. I don’t know what your humidity is in early to mid-summer when they bloom but dry air would probably crisp the whole plant up. Flowers are very small, many, and in a plume, like Celosia, or slightly cascading down, like a fireworks fall. The flowers are above the leaves and colors range from white to all shades of pink plus pinky reds and almost lilac-lavenders. Best in bright shade, they tolerate full shade – weaker bloom – and full sun – shortened flowering time. They’re easy here and hardy to zone 3 so most gardens have them.

Anemones are known as wind flowers – anemos = wind. I also knew Anemone as an animal before I learned it was also a plant. I don’t know why the animal has its name but maybe because the swaying tentacles look wind tousled. I grew up knowing tender Anemones by the corms that were planted in the fall and flowered in the spring and are commonly grown in Europe as cutflowers. Around here people know Snowdrop Anemone – Anemone sylvestris – as a zone 3 hardy, small, spring woodlander with white flowers. They also know Japanese Anemones for their fall bloom. Several species and many hybrids make up this group. Plants can be 2 to 4 feet tall and are known to spread. Most are zone 5 hardy and haven’t grown well for me but they are beautiful, especially the single-flowered types. Colors range from white through soft shades of pink and dusty rose. They also do best in part shade but I have seen spectacular ones in full sun. No matter what the species or hybrid, the seed pods look the same. They start as little upright drumsticks that are ovate tight congestions rather than in seedpods with hard coats. When the seeds are mature, the drumsticks start losing their integrity and break apart into what looks like masses of cottony fuzz with seeds. The seed is dispersed by being airborne, I’m guessing, but I find the whole thing becomes a sodden mess on the plant or on the ground rather than floating in the air. When I did flowering trials for a seed company, I used to dread when the Anemone seed came in without detailing – removal of the cottony mass. Instead of using a seeding machine, which was fast and made for easy plug planting, I had to broadcast sow in a flat and laboriously prick out the seedlings by hand. All Anemone flowers start out as buds that are nodding and right themselves before opening, a very charming trait. Anemone flowers look superficially like poppy flowers and I think that is why most people find them appealing.

I thought long before adding Allium to my list. My thinking was most people would be familiar with the fall-planted, spring-bloomers such as ‘Globemaster’, ‘Goliath’, ‘Mars’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘Purple Sensation’, ‘Mt. Everest’, and maybe species such as moly, karativiense, and schubertii. I was surprised how many customers at a retail nursery requested ‘Globemaster’. I also included Allium because of all the bulb catalogs that have been arriving in the mail. I don’t believe many people think of Allium when chives, onions, leeks, scallions, shallots, and garlic are mentioned and truthfully, neither do I. We have wild leeks or ramps growing natively and I always verify my identification by breaking a leaf, smelling, and tasting it. Mmm.

My inner plant nerd was dying to include many different types of categories of plant names and it was very tough narrowing it down to what I did. I agree with you regarding color and I’m also partial to ones that allude to the resemblance to flowers of other plants and generas. But I had to control myself and think about whom I was writing for, trying for a balance of introduction, knowledge, and entertainment without having the reader clicking away.

Loved the information regarding the spelling of Wisteria and Mr. Wistar. It makes me wonder if it was politics or a typo.

Kim November 8, 2006, 8:39 am

MSS and Annie: In northern Ohio everyone seems to refer to all ornamental alliums (those grown for their flowers) as simply “alliums.” Neither Latin names nor common names are used. We don’t refer to “drumstick alliums” or use cultivar names to differentiate ‘Globemaster’ from ‘Purple Sensation’–they are all just “alliums.”

We do say “chives” for the herb but don’t really differentiate between types of chives. We also only differentiate kinds of “garlic” by saying whether it’s ornamental or the eating kind.

Maybe it’s just that alliums have flown under the radar around here?

Annie in Austin November 8, 2006, 1:51 am

Craig, I got your puzzle immediately, and now realize that with the exception of Rhododendron, I’ve grown every plant on your list at some time in the last 30 years, including the astilbes and anemones that MSS hasn’t known.

MSS, in Illinois my gardening friends all said ‘Allium’ so maybe it is regional? Also, our Allium were mainly mail-ordered bulbs, never passalongs, so our first encounters with the plant may have included their botanical name.

Thanks for the interesting post, Craig!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) November 5, 2006, 9:25 pm

Very interesting and informative post as usual. Botanical names are certainly a key to understanding a plant. I can’t understand why some people run screaming from the room when they’re mentioned. Maybe it’s too much faith-based gardening.

I guess the one that threw me was “astilbe”. I don’t know what that is. I think AJM’s mum (in England) has pointed them out. And I’m not sure I could pick out an anemone either…I always think of sea anemone. And I don’t agree that “allium” is a common name–is this a regional difference? At least most people I know call the Alliums I grow by names like garlic chives, Naples onion, drumstick onion rather than Allium tuberosum, Allium neapolitanum, Allium sphaerocephalon.

However, I like your explanation of botanical names. My favorites are the names that give a hint to the plant’s color. Hmmm…I wonder when wistaria morphed to wisteria. According to Wikipedia, the “e” spelling is correct even though it was named for Caspar Wistar (and you’ll see it spelled with an “a” in older garden books).

Mary Ann November 5, 2006, 7:31 pm

Very informative post. Good grief. I is all I can do to REMEMBER cimicifuga and now, it it has been changed? And coleus? Dear old coleus? I am SOOOO far behind. I seem to spend a lot of time just catching up with the rest of the garden crowd.

Kim (Blackswamp_Girl) November 4, 2006, 11:41 am

Great information, and a well-thought-out post. I’m making a list of the “decoded” typical Latin descriptions you included so that I can remember what things like “alnifolia” mean.

My curiosity is getting the better of me, though, so I have to ask: Just what common native plant sparked this thought? I would have guessed Little Bluestem, but then figured if you meant common as commonly grown in garden settings, I would be wrong. 🙂

beth November 3, 2006, 3:40 pm

It’s funny Kathy, when Craig and I had our website for our nursery in California, I would do the writing and he would take all the photos and add the pictures to the site. Craig’s photos are even lovelier than his writing. ( Yes, spouse talking here but it is true) Now I find that corporate life has sucked out all my creativity and I feel my writing has suffered. If an interesting idea flitters through my brain, I will be sure to let you know. Thanks!

Kathy Purdy November 3, 2006, 2:58 pm

Well, Craig, I’m not your spouse and I’m always glad when you post, too! Thanks for commenting, Beth. Maybe we’ll get you writing here as well.

Craig Levy November 3, 2006, 12:19 pm

Thanks for the insightful remarks and kind words, Beth. It’s always nice to receive support from my spouse. As a volunteer, Beth was in charge of a bulb department for the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum.

beth November 3, 2006, 10:25 am

Well, Craig Levy, you’ve done it again. Another, well thought out and educational piece! Whether we acknowledge it or not, our society is constantly ‘dumbed-down’ to and using common plant names rather than botanical ones is a good example of the process in action. I used to volunteer and work at a local nursery and customers would wander in asking for plants by their common names. Many times I was stumped by their request and after talking for a bit I understood what they were looking for and would respond with the botanical name. They would often look at me quizzically-as if we were speaking two different languages. Many times I heard how difficult it is to pronounce the Latin name or remember it-it being much easier to remember the common name. If one thinks about it, botanical names give the reader so much more knowledge about the plant than the common name as you so excellently illustrated above. I am always glad when you post-you have such good knowledge to share.