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What's In A Name

Posted by Kari Houle - Articles

I was presenting a program the other day and a question came up asking if a plant was related to another plant since they had similar common names. It got me to thinking how important it is to understand the difference between common names and scientific names of plants.

Common names are just that, common and they can vary from location to location. There have been times when I've received a phone call and someone began asking me about a plant and provided me a common name that I was unfamiliar with requiring further inquiry to try and figure out exactly what plant the caller was referring too. Sometimes it even required a sample to be brought in or a picture to be sent via email so that everyone can be on the same page and I could positively identify the plant.

The scientific name of a plant is consistent across the board and references the same plant no matter where you are at and is always in Latin. Taxodium distichum will mean the same plant here in Central Illinois as it will anywhere else in the world. Knowing what the exact plant is makes for diagnosis of plants problems and treatment possible as well as making sure to know what the cultural requirements of the plant is.

Scientific names of plants – Plant Taxonomy is a method of classification that groups plants together based on physical characteristics and chemical analysis. There have been times when plants have been reclassified with use of modern scientific analysis so it may mean that some older books may not accurate list a plants scientific name. For example Coleus was recently reclassified in to a different Genus. What was once Coleus x hybridus it's now Solenostemon x hybridus.

There are times when the same common name is used in different regions but refers to two completely different plants. For example Liriodendron tulipifera is referred to Tuliptree around here but in other areas Yellow Popular is the common name so you could see where confusion might arise. Carpinus caroliniana is even worse when it comes to a variety of common names – Ironwood, Musclewood, Blue Beech, American Hornbeam, and Water Beech. Plant trivia anyone?

With that said, there is something entertaining about rambling off Latin names of plants and having people look at you quite oddly. I've had a few times where someone has spoken to me about a plant and provided me the common name and I sat there and stared at them like a deer in headlights and responded with "You wouldn't by chance happen to know the scientific name?" Conversation continues as said individual describes the plant and the light bulb goes off over my head and I rattle off the Latin name of said plant and then the deer in headlights look is returned. Humor aside, knowing the proper scientific name of a plant makes sure that we diagnosis disease or insect issue properly and if a course of action requires the use of chemical controls, we make the correct choices.

One of my favorite Scientific plant names is Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Dawn Redwood), say that five times fast! Do you know what the scientific name is of some of your favorite plants?



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