PLANT NOMENCLATURE and Reading GardenOpus


The various treatments of scientific, common, colloquial and cultivar names within Garden Opus are intended to be as streamlined as possible for the average reader.   Though there may be some disagreement between individuals or authorities as to the proper or accepted name of a plant, my mission is to be straightforward in how I represent commonly accepted names.  Since plant names pepper this entire work, and it’s easier to face them up front than to silently and frustratedly mumble through them, why not take a few moments here to become familiar with my protocol.

Though I wouldn’t expect the reader to flip back and forth between the pages of this book and either the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature or the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, I’ll try to adhere to some of the basic principles of those works, as well as add respectful nods to both The Elements of Style and The Elements of Grammar, in order to make the readers’ lives, my editor’s job, and definitely my own task as a writer a little bit easier.

Words like teak, for example, are common names but not proper nouns and will not usually be capitalized here unless leading a sentence.  However, teak’s botanical name, Tectona grandis, carries both a genus name, Tectona, and a species name (aka specific epithet), grandis, as part of its accepted Latinized binomial name.  Within the greater hierarchy, teak is in the Verbena family, Verbenaceae.  Since Verbena is not only an alternate common name of the genus for which the family is named, but also the proper Latinized name for the genus, it will be both capitalized and placed in italics, even if used as a common name.  Another generally accepted common name for Verbena, vervain – like many so-called “common” names, is not a proper noun and in fact like many archaic common names, is seen most often in print; I’ve rarely if ever heard “vervain” pop out of anyone’s mouth!   The genera Zinnia, Petunia, and Digitalis also are proper common names as well as Latinized genus names, though the alternative common name for Digitalis, foxglove, will usually appear in lower case.  And unlike “vervain”, gardeners will and do utter the word “foxglove” about as often as they say “Digitalis.” Likewise Tulipa is a genus name also used as a plant’s common name, though the more familiar “tulip,” in lower case, is the plant’s alternative common name; same as with Rosa and rose.  If the proper generic name is written in plural, such as Zinnias, I’ll leave the italics off.

Cultivar (cultivated variety) names or subspecies names will also be italicized, and will appear in bold – even if disjoined from the binomial:  thus we arrive at Tulipa Fosteriana Madame Lefeber (aka Red Emperor).  The aka signifies synonymy – the Tulip offered most frequently (and known by most gardeners) as Red Emperor was original christened Madame Lefeber and this is occasionally shown in commerce.  Note that in Tectona grandis, the specific epithet grandis is not capitalized, as it is based upon the word “grand”; in Tulipa Fosteriana, the specific epithet Fosteriana is a commemorative, and is capitalized, as it is based upon a person’s name, the proper noun “Foster”.  Another accepted way to express the same tulip cultivar name would be in single quotes, preceded by an abbreviation of “cultivar” or “variety” (or in other cases, “subspecies” – ssp.) as in Tulipa Fosteriana cv. (or var.) ‘Madame Lefeber’ (aka ‘Red Emperor’).  Fortunately, I do not intend to subject the reader, the editor or myself to that sort of grammatical or punctuational clutter – who needs the headache?  Plant names are tough enough as it is!

In Hortus Third, which was published in 1976 and capitalizes commemorative epithets, the option to either capitalize or leave lower case is given:  “It is now recommended that all specific epithets commence with a lower case letter, but the practice of capitalizing the first letter of epithets derived from names of persons, former generic names, and common (non-Latin) names is still permitted and is followed in Hortus Third as a guide to those who wish to continue the practice.”  Thank you, Hortus, as I am one of those who wish to continue the practice.

Here is a quick note on pronunciation of the aceae suffix on Latinized family names, such as Verbenaceae, Liliaceae, and Rosaceae.  Whether out loud or silently as you read, pronounce as three syllables, with a long, accented “a”, as in “á-see-eye”.  Otherwise, if you stumble repeatedly over these endings, it may detract from the pleasure (one hopes!) of your reading.  Within the industry, as well as in academic circles, I often hear “á -see-ee”, or worse yet, “á -see-uh” – both make me cringe equally, not unlike nails down a chalkboard.  The same goes for ii and other similar suffixes on many Latinized species and subspecies names, the actual endings of which are dependent upon the origin of the root word of their construction.  An example is Paeonia Brownii, Brown’s Peony.  These ending almost always resolve to two syllables equal in emphasis, so for ii you pronounce “ee-eye” identical to the last two syllables of the Latinized family name suffix aceae.  However, you will hear even professionals stretch this out to a single, fumbled, mumbled or murmured “eyyyyyyyyyye…” as if they were a certain former Alaska Governor tripping over the end of an interview response, or if they simply do not know quite what else to do.

No need to struggle like those so-called authorities, as now you are armed and powerful.  So get out there, take on the challenge, and knock those Latinized suffixes out of the park as if you were born with both hands on a bat (made in Louisville, of course, from the wood of Fraxinus Pennsylvanica – among those specimens in this part of the world not already ravaged by an emerald-colored foe)!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *