Saturday, 4 July 2009

Scientific names or not, as the case may be

I was thinking my blog list was looking a bit empty today (Hi Paul!) and so thought I'd have a look around at what sorts of things other gardener's blogs are on about. After a quick look, I've not come across anything like this one - most seem to be either about growing veg or conservation (and good for them). We're all about growing something unusual just for the sheer hell of it here. It doesn't have to be useful. It doesn't have to be especially rare. It just has to be something interesting that you don't see every day. Hopefully we'll fill a niche.

I came across this on Garden Rant (excellent name by the way - I love a good rant) about the use of scientific names. There's a long discussion pro and con there if you're interested. It's an issue I come across from time to time and you'll have noticed I use them all the time.
Most people I deal with seem to accept it - they too are plant fanatics and take the names for granted. Other people I speak to though - non gardeners and people who 'just want their yard to look nice' can seem a bit bemused. Most of the time I just tend to say "well just come and have a look and see what appeals to you and I'll give you some advice on you how to grow it" and they seem happy with that. After all, you don't need to understand your boiler to get hot water. A small minority though do seem to see my use of the latin as in some way elitist, snobbish, exclusive. (It's not really latin of course, scientific names are not only cobbled together from latin and classical greek but also incorporate modern people and place names and even local 'common' names as in the Japanese Kirengeshoma.) Interestingly, it's not the non-gardeners who tend to feel this way but rather, people who've been gardening for years and never seen the need. They can be very put out indeed.
So, scientific names. Why? Firstly - there's a time and a place. If I was concentrating on growing local native species for conservation for example I'd use the local vernacular. Likewise if I was growing fruit and veg or a very traditional garden of historically important herbs and flowers no doubt I'd stick to the perfectly good common names. I wouldn't say "I'm just going out to trim the Taxus baccata" or "How many Daucus carota do you want?"
But a quick look through even my modest catalogue makes it pretty obvious that this method breaks down in the face of the sheer quantity of plants from all over the world on offer these days. What would these 'traditionalists' prefer me to call Weigela middendorfiana? Middendorf's weigela? One suggestion was 'The Yellow Weigela', which was interesting on two counts. Firstly it's not the only yellow Weigela. Secondly of course, Weigela is a scientific name (commemorating someone called Weigel presumably). What a lot of traditionalists seem to forget is that many of the names they take for granted are scientific names - Rhododendron, Forsythia, Hydrangea, Delphinium, Geranium... and frankly, if you can wrap your tongue around Chrysanthemum you can handle pretty much anything. The biggest difficulty I find is when the name commemorates a Russian - take Molly-the-Witch as she is affectionately known among the tongue-tied (Paeonia mlokosewitschii). Or what about Ligularia przewalskii?
There's a certain amount of verbal contortionism involved here. The Ligularias used to be classified in Senecio - home of ragworts and groundsels. Siberian ragwort? Well actually there's a lot of Ligularias from that part of the world. I wonder what the locals call it, whoever they are? And then I wonder if we could pronounce it?
Some scientific names are claimed to be descriptive, so a simple translation should be possible. (The spider plant is my favourite - Chlorophytum. It means 'green plant'. How helpful is that?)
Let me think of a good one...
Ok, Hedge-garlic-leaved bell-flower. How's that? Easier than Campanula alliarifolia? It is fairly descriptive as these things go but there are several species fitting that description. You'd have to add 'pink' to the front perhaps to distinguish it from the very similar C.makaschvillii, and maybe other descriptions to avoid confusion with C.ochroleuca which is very similar. This is one of the problems - many gardeners just don't realise how many species there are out there. To those of us who only frequent garden centres it might appear that Campanula alliarifolia and Weigela middendorfiana are pretty unusual for their kind, but unfortunately they're not. They each belong in a group of similar species. Perhaps the traditionalists would not bother to make the distinction, and sometimes to all intents and purposes it doesn't matter that much.
How much it does matter really depends on how well the botanists have done their job. If they've simply been out there in the hills, giving new names to things that really aren't new, just to get their name on a scientific paper (as some gardeners suspect) then we are right to to ignore them. On the other hand, unfortunately, the criteria on which the botanists identify a new plant are often beyond the expertise of the average gardener or even other scientists. We have to take their word for it a lot of the time. And this unfortunately is the main point. Plant nomenclature is borrowed from the scientists. They do things differently. There is nothing to stop us as gardeners setting up our own horticultural nomenclature if we so wish. To some extent we already do - we classify plants according to whether they are edible or not, what colour the flowers are, whether they are hardy or not. The regulations on the use of cultivar names (the names of forms and hybrids of plants not found in the wild but originating in cultivation) are amazingly strict and often infuriating to gardeners (and the results can be cringingly unimaginative - how many Golden Queens and Blue Fountains and Ruby Dwarfs do we need?) But again, the number of types available is easy to underestimate and some form of system is needed if you're at all choosy about which one you want. You can't just ask for a damask rose or a lavender and be sure of getting the same thing you saw in that garden in Cornwall. You need to know the name, and it probably won't matter whether you are looking for Mme Zoetmans (how descriptive is that?) or Lavandula stoechas.
Which brings me, at last, to my final point - that actually the scientific names can, once you get the hang of them, be every bit as easy to say and to remember as the vernacular, and can be as evocative. I'm not sure anyone knows for sure how Latin should be pronounced, and as I said, it isn't strictly latin anyway, so, if in doubt, as with Spanish and Italian I tend to say the names phonetically. The references to people and places can be pronounced however the people and places are normally pronounced and as for the rest, well, my best advice is don't rush at it. Like being back at school, look at the word, take it apart, say the parts, get used to what they sound like in your mouth, and say it with confidence - Kirengeshoma!

Now people's names - they are a problem...