Botanical names are both a boon and a bane to gardeners. I have a difficult time pronouncing them ‘correctly’ and man, say it wrong to a hard-core gardener and they’ll certainly correct you! I’ve had my latin handed to me on more than one occasion!
Fortunately, the folks who bring us Fine Gardening magazine have created an audio pronunciation guide on their website to help even the most dyslexic of gardeners (like me) say the names correctly- or at least using the most common pronunciation. I’m still not going to call Peonies (in Utahnics Pee-o-knees) the back-East way of Pea-a-knees, you know? There IS an ‘O’ in there people!
Botanical names are sort of a necessary evil. A plant can have multiple ‘Common Names’ but some common names may be used in one region but not another. Each plant has only one Botanical Name- if you want to get the right plant, you really need to know it’s botanical name (or be good at Googling if you don’t want to expend the brain space needed to hold all those jumbled up names in there!) Complicating the process even more are the ‘cultivar’ names. What does all of it mean?
While the FULL botanical name, as determined by the System for Botanical Nomenclature, for a plant can include a LONG list of names, the general practice is to use a binomial system (two name system) with additional clarifiers as needed. The first name you’ll generally see on a plant tag is the Genus name, such as Salvia. The second name identifies the species, thus the same Salvia could read: Salvia nemorosa.
The first name describes common characteristics shared by a group of plants. The second name often has roots in the differentiating characteristic it is describing- such as Picea (spruce) pungens (Colorado Spruce) glauca (meaning having bluish foliage) ‘fastigiata’ (meaning columnar form). Other secondary names which are often used and describe characteristics are “aurea” (meaning yellowish foliage), “densata” (meaning dense foliage), “grandifolia” (meaning large flowers) etc. It can also give an indication of the location where the plant is endemic. “japonica” means of Japanese origin so it’s pretty obvious that “chinensis” would denote China. But all of that is making this post FAR more complex than intended!
If a special strain has been selected or a specific individual plant proved to be superior to others from the same genus and species, that plant can become a ‘cultivar’ which is then isolated and propagated for it’s superior characteristics. Thus a Salvia nemorosa ‘Blue Hill’ would be a specialized version of the parent plant that was selected out for characteristics that are different from the rest of the seed-grown batch.
In a similar vein are hybrids. Sometimes, you’ll see an “x” in between the genus and species name, such as Salvia x sylvestris. The “x” indicates that the plant in question is a cross between two species. Salvia x sylvestris is a cross between Salvia nemorosa and Salvia pratensis- it’s the offspring of the two similar species. Multi-plant-racial if you will. Plant breeders will often cross similar species in hopes of producing a batch of offspring that has the best qualities of both parents.
Rarely, you’ll see a BIG X with two genus names- this means the cross has occurred at the genus level rather than the species level (which would have a small x). It’s rare enough that I can’t even think of an example off the top of my head but if you know of one, feel free to add it in the comments.
Obviously determining and assigning botanical names is a complex operation beyond the needed knowledge of non-botanists. However, understanding the basic names will help you garden with more confidence and give you something to lord over others at cocktail parties! Okay, I sorta made up that last part as a joke but we ALL know Botanical name snobs- don’t be that person. It’s wonderful to memorize and share the names of plants but unless you know the person REALLY well, don’t preach it and don’t correct their pronunciation unless invited to do so. Just my unsolicited opinion on gardener etiquette!