The Coastal Gardener: The when and the why of how names matter

If you are a backyard gardener, your introduction to plant names probably came from plant labels, seed packets, maybe some plant catalogs or books and probably several casual conversations.

Those names that you learned were invariably what are called common names. The alternate, more specific name, is often referred to as the "scientific name," the "Latin name" or the "botanical name."

Regardless of how awkward botanical names appear at first, this is a plant's only real name. Common names are akin to nicknames. They're fine for casual conversation, but often unclear, regionally different and frequently changing.

In the past couple of decades, a plethora of plant marketing has clouded the usage of common names even more, to almost unrecognizable levels.

One plant company calls something a "Torch Daisy," while another calls it a "Sun Spot Daisy," a third call is a "Flame Daisy." Which one is correct? They all are.

There are no rules for the use of common names for plants; if you decide to grow a few plants in your backyard and call them "Barbara's Delight," you're perfectly within your rights.

In a crazy attempt to make each company's plants appear unique on the market, it seems that every plant company has taken the approach to making up a new common name. The abundance of common names for plants is out of control.

Conversely, a botanical name has the distinct advantage of referring to one and only one plant, anywhere in the world, with no exceptions. The use of botanical names makes communication between widely scattered gardeners more precise. Now that the Internet has made information worldwide and instantaneous, it is more important than ever to insure that we are all referring to exactly the same plant if a discussion is to have any meaning.

If you mention "daisy" to another gardener, you'll probably get a question back such as "which one?"

If you respond "African Daisy," the discussion doesn't narrow much further.

Confusion and misunderstanding is likely. If you ask why your African Daisy plants are blooming poorly, you are likely to get an erroneous answer if the person you ask doesn't know what plant you are talking about. There are dozens of different plants referred to as "African Daisies."

In spite of obvious pronunciation challenges, good gardeners, horticulturists, landscape professionals and others talk to each other in terms of genus and species — botanical names.

Every plant in the world, from roadside weeds to redwood trees have a unique two-word name that no other plant on the planet will ever share. Every plant in your garden has a unique two-word name as well.

You may call it an African Daisy in casual conversation, but botanically it is Arctotis acaulis, Arctotis being the genus and "acaulis" being the species.

A genus is the first component of a botanical plant name. The two-word system of naming all organisms on Earth organizes them into various groups: Kingdoms, divisions, orders, families, and genera. A genus is a basic grouping of similarly related plants.

In my example, the word Arctotis is the genus. Once we define a group of plants at the genus level we may want to be even more specific, and that is done by adding a second word, which is the species. The species for this example is "acaulis."

The two-word combination of a genus name and species name is the basic component of a complete botanical name — Arctotis acaulis. There are even finer divisions such as cultivars, varieties and subspecies, which describe other minor variations, but "species" is the basic level at which most gardeners and plant professionals operate.

Do you really need to learn all these complicated, hard-to-pronounce botanical names? No, certainly not.

Much as it is convenient to call me "Ron" in a casual conversation, you can also point to a plant and call it an African Daisy. No need to be overly complicated if there is no need. But there are times when we need to be more exact with our names.

When I'm checking in at the doctor's office or opening a bank account, I'm no longer just Ron. I'm "Ronald Vanderhoff." Referring to me as Ronald Vanderhoff in casual conversation would be awkward and overly formal, but there are times when it is appropriate.

Likewise, when you are looking at a pretty flowering daisy-type plant in a garden and a friend asks what it is, it's certainly acceptable to call it a "daisy." If you want to be just a bit more specific, you may even call it an African Daisy.

Just like Ron may be fine at times, so may be the term "daisy." But if your friend were especially fascinated by the flower she was seeing and might want to locate the exact same plant a few days later at a garden center, it would be far more helpful to tell her that the plant was an Arctotis acaulis.

Please, if you see me, call me Ron. But, if you're trying to find me in a crowded airport it would be best to page for Ronald Vanderhoff.

Otherwise, you're probably going to get the wrong person. Plants have lots of nicknames, but every once in a while it's appropriate to address them by their proper name — their botanical name.

RON VANDERHOFF is the nursery manager at Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar.

Ask Ron

Question: In the past I've seen sprays that are supposed to set more tomatoes and earlier. Should I use these?

Stevie, Newport Beach

Answer: I'm not a fan of hormonal fruit-set sprays. These products induce parthenocarpy, which means the development of fruits in the absence of fertilization by pollen. Because fruit development is abnormal you may get a mushy interior, misshapen fruits and few seeds. Besides, I believe these products are no longer registered for home garden use in California.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.

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