The Naming of Plants

Whilst I have been a gardener most of my life, both as a professional and an amateur, there are many people who perhaps through force of recent circumstances have discovered their gardens only now during the lockdown.


In a way I am envious of the discoveries they are going to make, even the enjoyment that sometimes comes from trial and error. Growing plants is an adventure, though sometimes it can be frustrating when your prize plants are ravaged by every type of sap sucking insect, or your waking hours are spent picking up slugs and snails, and wonder whether it is morally right to stamp the slimy life out of them under your heel.

One important aspect of learning about gardening is the naming of plants. At first the task of learning long Latin names seems onerous, and often gardeners can name the contents of their borders with a mixture of Latin and common names. Some plants it would seem are always known by their correct ‘scientific’ name, whilst others are invariably known by a variety of ‘common’ names. And here lies the problem. Common names it would seem are not common to everyone, and regional differences let alone the difference between countries can can cause confusion. As an apprentice working for Leeds Parks Department we were always taught Latin names, and this training has remained very firmly with me.

To give an example of this a bluebell in Scotland is commonly known as a harebell in England. Other examples might be plants that have a range of common names depending on where you live. Pulmonaria  is known as Jerusalem Primrose, Jack and Jill, as well as Soldiers and Sailors. I believe that Gaultheria has as many as 32 common names!

Going back centuries each plant was  known by long descriptive sentences; an extremely unwieldy way to name a plant. Not until the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus came along determined to classify the living world “from buffaloes to buttercups” was a dual  name system for plants established. So successful was it that it became universally accepted and your common dandelion when correctly named as Taraxacum officinale would be recognised and understood whether you were in Cumbria or Umbria!

In essence the system by which plants are named consists of two names: the first which is like our surname is the generic (genus), or group name. The second, the specific name (species) whilst it is only given to one plant of the same genus, like a christian name in a family, it can occur in many different genera. What I find more interesting than this though is the derivation and meaning of plant names.

Behind every plant name is a history – it is often a mixture of languages too as both Greek and Latin are apparent, and the species name describes the plant in terms of colour, form or habit. The species name can also be derived from the name of a person, or place.

As to pronunciation….I’ll leave this fascinating subject with a quote on ‘cyclamen’ from a very old gardening book.

How shall we sound its mystic name
Of Greek descent and Persian Fame?
Shall ‘y’ be long and ‘a’ be short’
Or will the ‘y’ and ‘a’ retort?
Shall ‘y’ be lightly rippled o’er
Or should we emphasise it more?
Alas! The doctors disagree,
For ‘y’s’ a doubtful quantity.
Some people use it now and then,
As if ’twere written ‘Sickly-men’,
But as it comes from kuklos, Greek,
Why not ‘kick-laymen, so to speak?
The gardener, with his ready wit,
Upon another mode has hit;
He’s terse and brief – long names dislikes,
And so he renders it as ‘Sykes’.

Happy gardening!


David Fletcher MCIHort is a fully qualified member of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, and has been a gardener most of his life, both as a professional and an amateur.


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