As someone brought up in a country where the botanical names of plants are always listed alongside their common names, even in children's reference books, it came as a big surprise to me when I got on the internet to find gardeners in the US using common names for the plants in their gardens. Obviously, everyone calls a Foxglove a Foxglove and a Poppy a Poppy, but when we're writing a list of the seeds we have to swap, most people in most parts of the world (at least those I've swapped with) use the Latin name. When I record the seeds I get, either from swaps or from a seed catalogue, I use the Latin name. That's partly because a lot of the plants I grow aren't common so they don't have a common name, but it's also because I like accuracy. Just writing 'Foxglove' doesn't tell me enough about what I've planted for me to know what to expect in the way of size or flower colour, and it isn't enough for me to be able to look it up to find out.
My Common Name or Yours?
By their very nature, common names can only apply to common plants. And common where? Plants common in one part of the world aren't common in another, so why should they have a common name for them? And your common name might not be the common name used in another part of your own country. Come to that, your common name might be peculiar to your own family. One of my favourite flowers as a child was Bunny Mouths. What would you think I had if I offered you seeds of those? I'll give you a clue - we used to press the sides of the flowers together so they opened their mouths. You probably know them as Snapdragons. I don't think I ever called them that. I just moved on from Bunny Mouths to Antirrhinums.
I have one of 900 types of Sage. Is this what you're looking for?
Calling your local flowers by a common name is all very well, but when you're exchanging seeds you need to be a bit more specific. You can't just write 'Sage'. I saw a post in which someone said they'd thought there was only one kind of Sage, but now they'd found there were several. There are over 900. If I put 'Sage' on my seedlist, how would you know which one I meant? If you had one growing locally which had red flowers, you might assume mine had red flowers too, and that you already had it so wouldn't want any more seeds from me. But I could have any of the other 899 species, and some of them would be very unlike the Sage you were familiar with, so you'd be missing out on a chance to get something new for your garden.
One of my favourite plant families is Campanula. Often, I see that translated into 'Bellflower', but there are over 300 types of Campanula, from delicate gems only 3" high for the rockery or alpine house to rough rampant ones like Campanula rapunculoides or 6' high ones like the Chimney Bellflower. Just calling it 'Campanula' doesn't help to identify it, beyond telling me it probably has blue bell-shaped flowers. I like the tiny ones; I don't like the big ones, so I'd need to know which one you were offering me before I could decide whether I wanted your seed or not.
I don't know the proper name, but I'll pretend I do
One thing that really irritates me about using common names is the half-hearted approach. So often, I've seen something called 'Persicifolia Bellflower' or 'Latifolia Bellflower'. How silly! Either you're going to use a Latin name or you're going to use a common name. You can't use half-and-half! If you can translate 'Campanula' into 'Bellflower', you can translate 'persicifolia' into 'Peach-leaved' and 'latifolia' into 'Wide-leaved'.
While it's quite appropriate to use common names all the time you're talking about a flower that is so common that everyone knows what you mean because it's a garden basic, once you have those basics and you want to try something different, you really have to be more particular in your descriptions and use the proper botanical name.
How to confuse everyone, including yourself
Apart from not knowing someone else's common name for a particular flower, common names can be positively misleading. Creeping Gloxinia isn't a Gloxinia, Creeping Zinnia isn't a Zinnia, Flowering Maple isn't a Maple. Yellow Flag's an Iris, Spanish Flag isn't. Various types of Agastache are called Liquorice, Basil, Hyssop or Mint, and Agastache isn't any of those (Liquorice is Glycyrrhiza, Basil is Ocimum, Hyssop is Hyssopus, Mint is Mentha), Evening Primrose isn't a Primrose, and when it comes to the 'Scottish Harebell', you've completely missed the point. This is Campanula rotundifolia, which is called 'Harebell' in England, but which is NOT called 'Harebell' in Scotland. They call it 'Bluebell'. So this is either English Harebell, or Scottish Bluebell, but not 'Scottish Harebell'. I don't know what that is - maybe they don't have one. The Bluebell in England is a totally different plant from a totally different family. Common names are confusing enough, but to get a common name wrong is asking for trouble!
Latin names are easy, really!
Getting used to the Latin names seems to strike a lot of people as needing a huge effort. It doesn't. No-one taught me or tested me on botanical names. I just absorbed them by reading them in plant books or seed catalogues, where the Latin name and common name are side by side. I think we have an advantage here, over here in Europe. All my gardening books and seed catalogues list plants alphabetically by their Latin names. I think it's quite usual in the US for books and catalogues to use the common names. But if you're going to talk about gardening with people all over the world, you ought to use the same language, the botanical names, so that you know which plants you're talking about.
To start you off, here are some common plants with their Latin name for you to get used to. Each species has its own particular 'specific epithet' - the second part of the name which only applies to that one plant. Now get a copy of the Chiltern Seeds catalogue to pore over while you drink your coffee. You'll be surprised how quickly you get the hang of it.
Common Name Botanical Name African Marigold
Batchelor's Buttons, Cornflower
Bells of Ireland
Black-eyed Susan Vine
Blue-eyed African Daisy
Coleus, Flame Nettle
Cup and Saucer Vine
Four o'clock, Marvel of Peru
Love in a Mist
Mexican Prickly Poppy
Poor Man's Orchid
Swan River Daisy
Sweet Annie, Wormwood
Yellow Horned Poppy
Pericallis x hybrida
Viola x wittrockiana
A lot of these names actually mean something. See Ipomoea alba for Moonflower? It's a white flower, right? The 'alba' bit means white. And Sunflower's an annual. If you didn't know that already, the Latin name annuus tells you. Sweet Pea is Lathyrus odoratus = scented.
Other entries with information on this topic
Perennial or Annual? - some popular plants with their common and Latin names
Common Names Index - the common names of plants mentioned in these pages, with their Latin name
Latin Names - the meanings of some common Latin botanical names
Plant Families - an introduction to Plant Families
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