David Stuart

explains some do's and don't with Latin names

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Take names with a pinch of wisdom. When somebody tries to patronise you by saying, once you've learnt a plant name, 'Well, actually that's in Lapeyrousia now...', ignore them; it's best simply to shrug. Either invent a monk in Syracuse in 1726, whose just published memoirs prove it's in something else again, or mutter something about an American botanist who's doing a new 'revision' (an important word to remember), which will change things again forever.

Nurserymen are permanently spiked on the problem, for they never know whether to sell a plant with a name recognised by most non-botanical customers (and see botanists noses turn up), or use the latest name, and then get sued by a disconsolate customer who's thought they'd found something new...

If you're absolutely determined not to be out-of-date, there is an obscure German work that appears periodically, with the very latest in naming 'chic'. It's rather like the Almanac de Gotha, in that it's found only on the best tables. We've never found it - and we always hope that by the time that anyone else has, it's been outdated by the latest batch of botanical papers.

Even when you've found a nice Latin name, there's then the iceberg-filled sea of pronounciation to be sailed through (rather like w hether you pronounce Van Gogh to rhyme with 'go' or 'loch' or 'hough') Don't worry if someone sniffs, then deliberately repeats what you've just said, as in ' Yes, isn't that Clematis lovely', but carefully puts the accent on another vowel . There isn't really a standard pronounciation (even though Latin snobs say there is). Botanists from France, Britain, America, even Italy, let alone from Indonesia, Nigeria, or Guiana, all find it almost impossible to understand one another when face to face. Latin really is a written language.

Of course, there are lots of gardeners who simply moan 'Why can't you use the common name?', imagining that there's a couthy, rural world where difficulties never really take root. Some common names are sometimes alright, even though they make garden snobs groan and look heaven-wards. However, many, like 'bachelor's button' refer to at least a dozen entirely different and unrelated garden flowers. And a name like 'apple ringie' which Scots with gardening grandmothers might know (botanists know it as Artemsia abrotanum), will leave a Yorkshire gardener looking blank (he or she will know it as 'Lad's Love'). In any case, it was once a well known aphrodisiac, so you ought to ask your grandmother if she led as blameless a life as she pretends.

Almost any widely used plant, like a vegetable or an herb, will have local dialect names, even names in local languages. Gaelic, for instance, has a good range of unique plant names, though I've only found one Scottish nursey that uses them (Poyntzfield Herb Nursery, Black Isle, by Dingwall, Rosshire IV7 8LX, and excellent too)

Some of the old names have a sort of ethnic charm, and are, after all, a very real part of the garden culture. However, with gardeners' rather general aversion to Latin, there are masses of quite awful 'fake' common names in garden books and catalogues, where the author can't bring him or herself to confess that tens of thousands of plants don't really have a vernacular name. Thus you see 'Mrs Barbers large-flowered Cape daisy', or those terrifying seed catalog names like 'Mini Bambini F1 Super Dwarf Mix' that hang onto some ghastly plant that looks like Shirley Temple, all plastic smiles and taped-up tits.

Mind you, I rather prefer even that to some of the horrible shortenings of Latin names. We once had some people here who left saying 'Loved your semps...' They meant some pans of Sempervivum by the steps into the kitchen courtyard. We cringed unforgiveably. But don't be put off. At least your plants aren't likely to be offended if you can't remember what they' re called, or how it's pronounced. A good, or at least a willing 'eye' is usually what makes a garden worth being in, not a classical education or a retentive memory. If a plant is lovely (and there are thousands upon thousands of them), plant lots of it, then plant next to it something that makes it look even better. What's in a name?



Copyright david stuart 2004