Silas Clifford-SmithOn the naming of plants

Like many students before me, I had to learn to identify a large and diverse range of plants during my formal horticulture training. As well as identifying the plants in tests, I had to write down the genus, species, variety and family for formal assessment by our lecturers. Marks were given for correct identification and likewise deducted for spelling and other stylistic mistakes.

Many gardeners are bamboozled by the scientific names of plants

Many gardeners are bamboozled by the scientific names of plants

Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, these exercises taught me to be aware of botanical variations as well as learning the scientific language of botany. Now, many years later, I have learnt to enjoy repeating the many tongue-twisting names invented by scientists from the time of the late 18th century. Two personal favourites are Parthenocissus tricuspidata (Boston Ivy) and Ceratostigma willmottianum (Chinese Plumbago).

While botanists and many horticulturists are happy to use scientific names this is not so with most home gardeners who find this elitist technical language as incomprehensible as the artificially constructed 19th century European language Esperanto. So why do we persist in using scientific names?

The standard response given by horticultural educators is that there is only one scientific descriptor given to a plant while there are many different common names given to the same specimen; this, according to the educators, often leads to confusion. This is indeed the case with the east Asian climber Parthenocissus tricuspidata, which as well as being known in English as Boston Ivy is also called Japanese Creeper, Japanese Ivy and Grape Ivy. On a personal note, my parents once had this plant growing on the front of their home for many years and erroneously called it Virginia Creeper, an epithet given to another member of the genus.

Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata)

Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata)

While it is true there is only one official botanical name given to a plant at one time it may have had many other scientifically sanctioned names in the past. Many of these were published in floras and in nursery catalogues and therefore persist to the present day. Many in the nursery world fall in love with a particular name and refuse to change labels whatever the scientists pronounce as correct. One of the few local botanists who have tried to unite the disciplines of botany and horticulture is Roger Spencer of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. Spencer regularly writes articles for the trade press where he updates changes in the botanical names given to plants.

One organisation that has tried to inform the public of historic changes in scientific names is the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales (HHT). A free access website managed by HHT is the Colonial Plant Database. Keying in the name of a modern plant name supplies a list of variant plant names and the time of introduction to Australia (if the plant was first introduced in the 19th century).

The provocative garden writer William Robinson. Image courtesy

The provocative garden writer William Robinson. Image courtesy

While most horticultural educators prefer the naming of plants by the binomial name method (genus and species name) there have been some dissident opinions. The Irish-born garden writer William Robinson (1838-1933) had strong views on the naming of plants. While recognising the need for botanists to use scientific descriptors he found little reason to use them in the home garden. Robinson, writing in The English Flower Garden vented his views on the subject:

It is best to speak of things growing about our doors in our own tongue, and the practice of using in conversation long Latin names, a growth of our own century, has done infinite harm to gardening in shutting out people who have a heart for a garden, but none for the Latin of the gardener. There is no more need to speak of the plants in our gardens by their Latin names than to speak of the dove or the rabbit by Latin names, and where we introduce plants that have no good English names we must  make them as well as we may.

While Robinson’s views are thought provoking, his romantic perspective is somewhat naive. Whether we like it or not the persistent use of scientific naming in the horticultural world will continue well into the future. While it is important for botanists to inform horticulturists and gardeners of changes it is onus on the nursery trade to respond to these changes. If they don’t we might as well follow Robinson’s view and rely on using common names.

In a future post I will write about the good and bad ways to label plants in the garden.

Plant labels certainly help us remember what plant is what, but do they distract from the beauty of the plant?

Plant labels certainly help us remember what plant is what, but do they distract from the beauty of the plant?


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Silas Clifford-Smith

About Silas Clifford-Smith

Silas Clifford-Smith is a Sydney-based gardener, artist and writer. He specialises in the restoration and care of heritage landscapes and has worked in some of the best-known gardens of the Sydney region including Admiralty House, Vaucluse House and Elizabeth Farm. As well as his hands-on work he writes about gardening, art and heritage matters for a broad range of publications. He trained in horticulture at Ryde TAFE in the early 1990s and later graduated from the University of Sydney with a BA in Art History. For more information about his work please refer to his website: and blogs at The Reflective Gardener

10 thoughts on “On the naming of plants

  1. Great article, thanks Silas. I have just started a horticulture course and the first unit was plant naming and the binomial system. I tend to agree with Robinson, in that; for instance, my 87 year old mother a keen gardener is completely baffled by my proud exclamation of the botanical name for a plant. I can see that it serves no purpose for the home gardener. As you point out, even the botanical names are as confusing as the common names. As I search for the name of the ubiquitous white daisy bush in our garden I am more lost than ever!
    looking forward to you further articles.

    • Thanks for your feedback Dianne. Robinson was indeed right about gardeners over using scientific names while we use common names for the birds and animals around us. Stick with trying to learn the scientific names. While I found it difficult to remember early on in my training I soon got the hang of it and it helped my botany skills.

  2. One of my favourite tongue-twisters is from a climber related to the Parthenoscissus you like. Ampelopsis brevipedunculata is the porcelain vine with berries that turn shades of green, purple and turquoise. Lovely! One variant is Ampelopsis brevipedunculata var. Maximowiczii which frankly, is getting out of hand. I also love Lonicera fragrantissima for its mellifluous syllables.
    I’d love to hear other people’s favourites.

  3. I just had a conversation with a nursery customer asking for a replacement 2 meter shade-loving plant for a nature strip that had just had a ‘cheese tree’ removed. I asked more questions thinking it was a Glochidion ferdinandii (hope you like that one Silas) and asked about stump grinding only to realise it was a Monstera deliciosa!!! Ha!!

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