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The Ambiguity of Names

Published on August 28th 2018

by Helen_Allsebrook. All rights reserved

It came to me as I was writing about autumn bulbs just how confusing plant names can be.
The autumn crocus (Colchicum) isn’t a crocus, it just looks like one, yet the autumn daffodil (Sternbergia) is a daffodil but looks more like a crocus. Plants, eh?!
This sort of confusion is part of the reason we have botanical names. “But I just like geraniums and nasturtiums,” I hear you say, “I don’t care about those fancy names!” I get you.
When I first became interested in plants, I couldn’t believe how many names there were. It was a name soup. But here’s where the confusion comes in. Let’s take that geranium. Do you mean the half-hardy summer bedding plant or the hardy cottage garden perennial? The confusing thing is that some plants have other plants’ Latin names as their common names, which makes nobody’s life easy.
As a general rule, if you see it written in italics, it’s the Latin name, so: geranium = Pelargonium and then Geranium = cranesbill.
A purple flower on a Geranium 'Rozanne' plant

Geranium 'Gerwat'

Geranium 'Rozanne'

Meadow Cranesbill

Geranium pratense

Bloody Cranesbill

Geranium sanguineum

Carpet Geranium

Geranium incanum

Rose Pelargonium

Pelargonium graveolens

Citronella Pelargonium

Pelargonium citronellum

Sticky-Leaf Pelargonium

Pelargonium glutinosum

And what about that nasturtium I mentioned? Remember, italics for Latin: nasturtium = Tropaeolum (charming annual with bright, edible flowers) whereas Nasturtium = watercress. Yes, the botanical name for watercress is the same as the common name for the favourite annual. It’s a confusing business, but start to learn the basics of plant names, and in no time you’ll be impressing your friends at dinner parties with the Nasturtium leaf salad you prepared earlier topped with a stunning nasturtium flower garnish.
Daniel Cousin spent his formative years training under the watchful eye of Percy Thrower's daughter, Margaret, at her father's garden centre in Shrewsbury while training in horticulture. He now lives in London and loves growing aroids, exotics and scented plants on his postage-sized roof terrace in Pimlico.

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