The Nasty Secrets of Scientific Nomenclature

Of late I have been reading a good many gardening books, and a good many of them use scientific nomenclature for plants. This is to avoid confusion – or at least it would be if those in charge of said nomenclature didn’t keep changing the names between books. Still, once you have a bit of Latin (and occasionally Greek) under your belt, you have a nifty resource for extracting information about the plant in question.

The first part of the name is the surname or family name; and the second part is the specific species name. To give you an example, if I was a plant I would be Makarios deborah, or, if members of the family Makarios were the subject of discussion, just M. deborah.

Camellia sinensis, to give you an actual plant example, is a camellia from China, and is the plant that produces tea. Camellia japonica, on the other hand, is from Japan, and… also tea. If you like. It is said to be higher in caffeine and lower in tannin, so if you need to absorb iron but also stay awake all night, Camellia japonica tea may be for you.

You are going to need a bigger teapot.

Then there are the Alseuosmias. (And this is another reason why I’m glad this isn’t a podcast: Alseuosmia is yet another word I can spell but have no idea how to pronounce.) Alseuosmia means something like “scent of the grove”. So, for example, you have Alseuosmia macrophylla (big-leaved scent of the grove), and Alseuosmia quercifolia (oak-leaved scent of the grove).

The eagle-eyed among you will have noted that we have two word-bits for leaves here with different origins. Phylla (as in phyllo) from Greek, and folia (as in foliage), from Latin. No, I have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea and liable to reduce confusion.

Sometimes, for variety, you get the same word-bit used in more than one place. For example, the “osmia” bit in Alseuosmia also shows up as the “osma” in Coprosma, again meaning “scent of”. Unfortunately, the “copro” bit is the same as in coprolite. Yes. This whole plant family is named Smells of Poo.

Coprosma arborea – Tree That Smells of Poo. Coprosma atropurpurea – Dark Purple and Smells of Poo. Coprosma grandifolia – Big-Leaved and Smells of Poo. Coprosma rotundifolia – Round-Leaved and Smells of Poo. Coprosma elegans – Elegant But Smells of Poo. Coprosma montana – Lives in the Mountains and Smells of Poo. Coprosma foetidissima – REALLY Smells of Poo.

Looks pretty but REALLY Smells of Poo.

The unfortunate thing about all this is that not all Coprosmas actually smell of poo. It’s like having the family name Stinky, because one of your cousins doesn’t believe in showering more than once a month or so.

To add to the confusion, the name – first or second – may tell you nothing more than who first claimed to discover it, or who financed the first person who claimed to discover it, or who the first person who claimed to discover it wanted to butter up. (This is how I learned to spell fuchsia. To find out why, snaffle yourself a copy of this.)

Although personally, I wouldn’t fancy having a Smells Like Poo named after me; and I have serious doubts about whether coupling someone’s name with Smells Like Poo is really that much of a compliment. One could even try running a small protection racket along those lines. (See C. archboldiana, C. baueri, C. brassii, C. cheesemanii, C. colensoi, C. cookei, C. fernandeziana, C. hookeri, C. huttoniana, C. menziesii, C. meyeri, C. moorei, C. oliveri, C. petriei, C. talbrockiei, C. wallii, and C. wollastonii, all of whom clearly failed to pay up on receipt of threat.)

If you were a plant, what bit of Greek or Latin would you like attached to your name? The Caped Gooseberry could be described as barbatus (bearded). My Dearly Beloved, that is, not Physalis peruviana (from Peru). They may both be edulis (edible) but I hope he is never oleracea (used as food). Myself, I would like to think that I am neither rapa (turnip-like) or spicata (spiky) but what Linnaean adjective might best be attached to me I am as yet uncertain. What do you think?

2 Replies to “The Nasty Secrets of Scientific Nomenclature”

  1. A friend retrained later in life as a horticulturalist. I was very impressed that she had to learn 3 names for each plant: botanical, common English, and Maori (for NZ plants). I have no idea how anyone could do that with so many plants.
    Personally, I don’t worry about what the plant names mean. Call me ignorant or a philistine or an amateur, but I go by what the plant will look like, and what its cognomen is. (Cognomen is my term for the cute little affectionate name that distinguishes it from any other one of its family) Hence I bought ‘Something Something Bluehobbit’ to go in my specifically Tolkien corner, and ‘Something Something Susan’ to go in my Narnia front garden. As well as these names, I avoid plants with lots of spikes, a bad smell, or pink or purple flowers! (well I ask you, pink?!)

    1. I entirely agree with you about the pink! That and sharp yellow-green are the two colours I eschew in my garden.
      I don’t think I’ve actually tried to learn scientific names, it’s just that I see them over and over again and eventually they sink in.

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