March 18th, 2007


On the naming of plants

Botanists are the bane of the gardener's life because they are always changing plant names. Euphorbia polychroma or E. epithymoides? Make your minds up, chaps!

In yesterday's Telegraph gardening section Mary Keen describes how, in 1987, she sent a copy of her new book to the late, great plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas. He returned it, covered in red biro (!) with a note saying that there were 'errors of nomenclature on every page'. She goes on to say that the publication, in the same year, of the first edition of The Plant Finder, could have saved her a lot of trouble.

It is an invaluable, annual publication but don't think it protects you from botanists. The Telegraph story reminded me of something that happened years ago. I had written an article for The Journal of The Hardy Plant Society about North American woodland plants I was growing in the garden. Imagine my horror on receiving later a forwarded letter from an American professor demanding to know 'the basis of your contributor's assertion that' plant x was called plant x. (Too lazy to look it up now but I think it was Mertensia virginica.) I wrote to the chap saying that I was an amateur gardener and that the nomenclature in my article was based on The Plant Finder. Whether this satisfied him or not I don't know but I heard no more about it.

We all owe Linnaeus a debt and it's obviously a good thing that plant names should be standardised but really, these chaps are obsessive dedicated to accuracy. Gardeners refuse to learn though and nowhere is this more vexing than in the naming of geraniums. Strictly speaking, a geranium is a hardy plant, such as Geranium pratense, a British native. The 'geraniums' used for summer bedding and greenhouse decoration are mostly tender, come from South Africa and are Pelargoniums. If you call them Pelargoniums, though, other people will think you snobby or simply not understand you. I once worked in a garden centre. A customer came in demanding to see some Pelargoniums. So I showed her some. 'No, no,' she said, crossly, (it's amazing how rude people could be to you), 'Pelargoniums!' It turned out that what she wanted was Regal Pelargoniums and as she was the customer I had to bite my tongue and persuade her to buy them.

Perhaps the botanists are right after all.