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Common names vs botanical names

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Common names

The most common question asked by gardeners is ‘Why can’t we just use common names?’. While, on the face of it, this is an attractive proposition, there are several factors that make this impractical for garden plants.

The main hurdle is that plants are introduced from all over the world and therefore do not have common names in the language of the recipient country. Although common names could be introduced along with the plant, in whatever language, experience teaches us that acceptance of such names is likely to be resisted, and the possible need to transliterate the names from non-Roman scripts, such as Japanese or Hebrew, is a further complication.

Additionally, there will often be more than one name available and there is no system to decide which one to use. Many plants attract a plethora of common names of very local usage, even within a small country and, of course, widespread plants have common names in many languages. Also, there will be plants that do not have a common name in any language if they have never been found to be useful to man.

It would naturally be possible to invent common names in suitable languages for recipient countries. In fact this is already done extensively in the United States, but with no system to regulate or standardise names, confusion can easily arise through ‘common’ names having no regard for the relationships between plants. For example, fragrant Himalayan champaca, banana shrub and Jack Fogg michelia are common names listed in a recent catalogue for Michelia champaca, Michelia figo and Michelia x foggii ‘Jack Fogg’ respectively. These are three closely related plants whose botanical names identify them precisely and reveal their relatedness. With no other point of reference, the common names chosen are forced to draw upon unrelated elements of the botanical names and can end up as more complex constructions without conveying as much information. The ‘common’ names do not show that these are similar plants yet do not avoid ‘difficult’ botanical elements. An added problem in an alphabetical list like the RHS Plant Finder is that common names of related plants would appear in different parts of the book.

On a slightly different but related tack, familiar and well-loved common names tend to get used for more than one plant. A classic example in the English-speaking world is bluebell, referring to Hyacinthoides non-scripta in England, Campanula rotundifolia in Scotland, Sollya heterophylla in Australia and species of Mertensia in North America. The scope for confusion is enormous.

Botanical names

Most people do not think twice about using rhododendron, chrysanthemum or fuchsia as the common names for three large, popular groups of plants, but these are also their botanical names. The fact that they have passed into common usage demonstrates the great strength of botanical names - they are intended to be universal. The aim of the botanical naming system is to provide each different plant with a single name which can be recognised by anyone, whatever their own language.

Botanical names are often referred to as Latin names, but this is slightly misleading. While it is true that the rules governing the formation and spelling of names are based on Latin, any word, in any language, can form the basis of a plant name. Thus many plant names commemorate people and places or are derived from common names used in the country of origin. These are indiscriminately mixed with Latin and Greek words, all of them ‘latinized’ by following the rules of Latin grammar.

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If you find the database useful for your work, please mention it when citing sources of information. It may be cited as…

‘The Royal Horticultural Society Horticultural Database’, available at www.rhs.org.uk