The Coastal Gardener: The when and the why of how names matter

May 06, 2011|By Ron Vanderhoff
  • Is this an African daisy, a torch daisy, a sun spot Daisy, a flame daisy or just a regular daisy? It's all of these, but when accuracy is important it is an Arctotis acaulis.
Is this an African daisy, a torch daisy, a sun spot Daisy,… (Ron Vanderhoff,…)

If you are a backyard gardener, your introduction to plant names probably came from plant labels, seed packets, maybe some plant catalogs or books and probably several casual conversations.

Those names that you learned were invariably what are called common names. The alternate, more specific name, is often referred to as the "scientific name," the "Latin name" or the "botanical name."

Regardless of how awkward botanical names appear at first, this is a plant's only real name. Common names are akin to nicknames. They're fine for casual conversation, but often unclear, regionally different and frequently changing.

In the past couple of decades, a plethora of plant marketing has clouded the usage of common names even more, to almost unrecognizable levels.

One plant company calls something a "Torch Daisy," while another calls it a "Sun Spot Daisy," a third call is a "Flame Daisy." Which one is correct? They all are.


There are no rules for the use of common names for plants; if you decide to grow a few plants in your backyard and call them "Barbara's Delight," you're perfectly within your rights.

In a crazy attempt to make each company's plants appear unique on the market, it seems that every plant company has taken the approach to making up a new common name. The abundance of common names for plants is out of control.

Conversely, a botanical name has the distinct advantage of referring to one and only one plant, anywhere in the world, with no exceptions. The use of botanical names makes communication between widely scattered gardeners more precise. Now that the Internet has made information worldwide and instantaneous, it is more important than ever to insure that we are all referring to exactly the same plant if a discussion is to have any meaning.

If you mention "daisy" to another gardener, you'll probably get a question back such as "which one?"

If you respond "African Daisy," the discussion doesn't narrow much further.

Confusion and misunderstanding is likely. If you ask why your African Daisy plants are blooming poorly, you are likely to get an erroneous answer if the person you ask doesn't know what plant you are talking about. There are dozens of different plants referred to as "African Daisies."

In spite of obvious pronunciation challenges, good gardeners, horticulturists, landscape professionals and others talk to each other in terms of genus and species — botanical names.

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