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Ask a Master Gardener: What’s In a Name?

By Alice Marty, Mobile County Master Gardener, www.mobilecountymastergardeners.org


Recently I purchased a book by plant expert Allan Armitage, an internationally well-known writer, speaker, and horticulturist. I own his reference book, “Armitage’s Garden Perennials,” and was looking for something more low-key. This time I selected “Of Naked Ladies and Forget-Me-Nots: The stories behind the common names of some of our favorite plants.” The title is quite an attention-getter. Yet an even more brash title was at first proposed. After deciding that plant lovers were mostly a PG group and gathering opinions from several fellow authors, Dr. Armitage decided a last-minute change should be made. You must read the book to find the “before publishing” title. I am not one to give away all an author’s secrets.


The first chapter in the book is titled ‘A Hydrangea Named Annabelle.’ “The story begins in 1910 when two sisters, Harriet and Amy Kirkpatrick were on horseback in the countryside near their small town in southern Illinois. They were gardeners, so when they came upon a hydrangea unlike any they had seen, they took a few cuttings.”


It was 50 years later that woody plant expert J.C. McDaniel passed through the town of Anna, Illinois. He noticed a hydrangea that he did not recognize blooming in every garden. Of course, he stopped at a house to ask the name of the cultivar. The homeowner did not know the name of the plant, only that her mother had found them somewhere. He asked if he could take some cuttings.

Only three years later, mature plants were ready to be marketed under the name Annabelle, for the belles of Anna, Illinois.


Some of the 217 story titles that may pique your interest:

‘How the Poppy Became the Flower of Remembrance’

‘Was There Really a Man Called Joe Pye?’

‘Who Was Sweet William?’

‘Poke Salad Annie’

‘Did the Confederacy Really Have a Rose?’


In the forward of his book, Dr. Armitage states “Gardening should be fun! After speaking at a gardening meeting in New York, a member of the audience asked ‘What do you think of people using common names instead of botanical names?’ One of the other speakers answered that he used botanical names exclusively, and most of the other experts agreed. They felt that common names were confusing, and were often different in various areas of the country, state, or even within a county. Stating if gardeners and landscapers would try to use botanical names, they would become more efficient when speaking, and asking for specific plants would not be a problem.


Dr. Armitage had a different answer to the question. “Wait a minute, you guys are crazy! Gardeners can’t be expected to keep up to date with Latin names! But most importantly, we must make gardening simpler—and more fun.”


You may be surprised to find out that Master Gardeners do not study Latin to memorize the scientific names of plant groups. Like every other plant lover, Master Gardeners use and enjoy the common names that come to mind more easily, and usually describe the plant attributes, good or bad. Since so few people speak Latin, common names seem like a logical plan. But there are drawbacks.


Let’s say you are on a social media site, and someone posts a photo of a hen and chicks plant. They ask if it is hardy in zone 5. Some respondents say “Yes” and others say “No.” Obviously, everyone can’t be right. Using a common name is what caused the confusion. The common name hen and chicks can be shared by sempervivum, echeveria and some sedum species. What you call hen and chicks may not have the same growing requirements as my hen and chicks. They may even look different. Echeveria is not hardy in zone 5, Sempervivum tectorum is. It will be difficult to find the correct cultural information without the botanical/scientific name.


I stand in the middle of this subject. Common names are good until I want a very specific plant. Then I go scientific! Dr. Armitage is a vastly educated plant expert, and we both think “Gardening should be fun!”


Resources: (1) “Of Naked Ladies and Forget-Me-Nots, The stories behind the common names of some of our favorite plants.” by Allan M. Armitage ©2017


Photo credits: With permission of David J. Stang and Liné1 on commons.wikimedia.org


Sempervirum tectorum, also goes by the common name Hens and Chicks.

Echeveria elegans, also called Hens and Chicks but has different flowering habits and life cycles

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