Why do we find botanical plant names hard to learn?

Every day I hear or read someone struggling with how hard botanical plant names are to learn. Usually from horticulture students being forced to learn them for exams or people starting to get into gardening, suddenly exposed to the likes of Eurybia divaricata, wondering why we can’t just call it a white wood aster.

Why do I need to know botanical names?

You don’t! Up front, I’ll just say, in day-to-day life you don’t need to know any names for plants, not even the common ones. You can grow stuff and just know it’s that white flower that pops up every year, or the small tomatoes you know you can grow easily from seed. There is nothing wrong with common names either, go with what works for you.

Feel free to make your up own names, if I want to call Dahlias ‘puffle wuffles’ I can and no one can stop me. Kew Gardens won’t be banging at my door with a squad of plant police to compost me.

The point I’d like to make here is that botanical names aren’t actually as hard to learn as you first think. And if you struggle to learn them, it isn’t your fault.

You already know lots of botanical names

Acer, Clematis, Geranium, Dahlia, Hydrangea, Miscanthus, Wisteria.

It’s likely you know a number of the above plant names as well as you know the common names daisy or dandelion. Yet these are botanical names. For some reason, with these plants we know them as well as the common names but why?

Then there are the ‘almost botanicals’…

Pine is Pinus. Rose is Rosa. Tulip is Tulipa.

… here for some reason in everyday use the name has changed slightly but you’re already almost there. Usually you just have to stick an ‘a’ on the end and you’ve got it.

What are botanical names and why do they exist anyway?

Botanical names are used in science, so as an every day gardener you can ignore them. Close this page down and never think of them again. Unless you want to be sure you’re growing the exact plant you want to.

Without going into a big explanation, botanical names are generally made up of two parts. Such as Rosa canina, the wild dog rose indigenous to Europe. The first part ‘Rosa’ is called the genus and the second ‘canina’ is a specific epithet.

If that last paragraph reads like gobbledegook I don’t blame you. It’s scientific jargon. So instead, think of botanical names as a giant spreadsheet. In the first column is Rosa, in the second second is canina. The first word can then tell you what other plants this rose is closely related to. For example:

Rosa
Rosa
Rosa
Rosa
Rosa
Rosa

canina
rugosa
blanda
californica
bractica
glauca

I could go on to list loads of different species of roses but you get the point. In day-to-day use, all you really need to know is that it’s a Rosa. As someone on my RHS course once said to me, it’s a bit like cars, all you really need to know is it’s a Ford or Volkswagen and you’re halfway there. The model can come later.

The second part often includes clues to explain the plant, e.g. Rosa glauca has glaucous leaves and stems.

Anyway, I could go on but that’s a quick explanation, a botanical name is used in scientific circles to categorise plants into a giant spreadsheet so we know how the planty tree of life is connected. Just like a family tree drawing with multiple levels (or spreadsheet columns) above them, connecting everything, that’s why it exists. It is flawed because it was created by the big white male patriarchy with roots in the worst of colonialism but the framework is the best we’ve got and it works.

Yeah but what are the benefits to me?

I find the main benefits are that I can order the exact plant I want and know it’s correct. For instance Rudbeckia is called a black eyed susan, but other plants are called this, and there are multiple species of black eyed susan. By asking for Rudbeckia missouriensis I know I’m getting the right one.

It may come as a surprise to people in southern UK to learn that in Scotland a blue bell is an entirely different plant. And in America it’s another set of plants. Common names are often local, which is problematic in today’s global world. It’s not good me talking about a blue bell on social media when it means a whole host of plants to my followers.

When I talk to people around the world, using the botanical name is a universal language.

Botanical names aren’t Latin

OK, so they use bits of Latin but botanical names aren’t all written in Latin. They started using ancient Latin and Greek as a basis because it needed to be a universal language used in every country around the world. And I guess as so many Western languages have a base in these ancient languages that made sense.

You’ll also notice names, Nepenthes attenboroughii, is unsurprisingly not ancient Latin. Honour names are given to some species.

This is problematic because it means the whole botanical naming system’s roots are in colonialism, has elements of racism and white-wash plant names that already existed locally in other languages. Most honour names have been given to Western white people.

But because it is a giant spreadsheet of names, and not in real ancient Latin or Greek, this opens up the possibility to working with communities around the world to rename plants to better reflect different languages, and begin to right wrongs.

There’s no reason for instance that a plant couldn’t be given a two part name (binomial) in other languages. And indeed this is starting to happen, something I discuss in more detail in Issue Two of my Wild Way Newsletter.

So why are botanical names so hard to learn?

My main point in this article is that they aren’t, if you already know Wisteria, Echinacea and Dahlia, you’ve already proven to yourself that you can learn botanical names.

Why then, do we struggle with others?

It comes down to repetition and regular use. We know Wisteria because that’s all we call it. Everyone calls Wisteria, Wisteria. It may only be the first name (the genus) but once you know a Volkswagen is a Volkswagen, getting to the model is much easier.

There is no reason why Daisy should be easier to learn than the botanical name Bellis other than the fact everyone calls it a daisy. You can force yourself to learn the word Bellis through repetition, but if you aren’t using it regularly, over time the general populace will brainwash you back into knowing Daisy but perhaps forgetting Bellis.

We all know Elton John but might struggle to remember his real name, Reginald Dwight.

Why do botanical names change?

So you may be thinking, but just as I learn them, they change. Many Sedums are now grouped under Hylotelephium, Asters in various groups from Eurybia to Symphiotrichum.

This is annoying but also a good thing, because it means science has learnt more about the plant and decided it doesn’t belong in that group any more. Plant names are changing a lot at the moment because advances in technology and science, particularly digital records and DNA testing, are much more precise. We’re living in a time of mass plant recategorisation.

It does mean we have to relearn them, but if we’re using and hearing them all the time, making the name change is much easier. Putting responsibility on nurseries and media to keep up-to-date and help everyone else learn them naturally through repetition.

Deliberately misleading naming

Worst offender is the confusion between Geranium and Pelargonium. These are two entirely separate genera (group) of plant and at some point in the early 19th Century, western garden centres decided – for inexplicable reasons – that Geranium is easier to learn than Pelargonium. Which is a total nonsense.

They renamed Pelargoniums as Geraniums, and the real geraniums became ‘hardy geraniums’. Why this happened makes no sense, they don’t even look alike! To this day shops still call Pelargoniums, Geraniums, but pioneering nurseries, magazines and social media influencers are helping correct this blunder.

It’s misleading because the two genus have entirely different growing conditions. Geraniums are hardy and like rich, damp soil. Pelargoniums are not hardy, needing to be brought inside in winter in the UK, and need drier soil conditions to not rot.

Worse than that, it’s made people feel stupid or bad for now not being able to remember Pelargonium, based on a patronising decision decades ago. But why should we remember Pelargonium as well as Geranium when it’s not being used as regularly and we’re having another name repeated at us.

You’re not stupid for finding botanical names hard

So the point of this article is not to convince you to start learning botanical names, you don’t need to. But I do want to convince you that learning them isn’t necessarily hard, that’s a myth because we’ve shown we know some already.

The problem is that the botanical names aren’t used regularly, helping them seamlessly slip into our memories.

Which is why I have always used the botanical names, often alongside other common names, to help you learn and correct what I see as a flawed past approach that benefits no one.

Thankfully, the full gardening chain from TV, magazines, to nurseries and garden centres are getting better at using botanical names alongside the common ones, making it easier for us to learn them.

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