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Why Names Matter

Adobe Stock
Adobe Stock
Plant labels

Recently, I visited my sister — and while there I joined in on her daily walks. During one, she told me about a plant she received from a friend and called it Bishop’s weed. I am not the best at common names, particularly when in a different part of the country, so I wondered which plant she was referring to. When she showed me the plant, I realized it was Aegopodium podagraria, which I know the common name to be goutweed.

This European native is not invasive in Virginia, but the 1-foot-tall perennial aggressively spreads in the garden. This Aegopodium is also referred to as snow-on-the mountain and ground elder. Well, snow-on-the-mountain to me is Euphorbia marginata, a North American native plant which grows 2’ tall and is a great late season nectar source for pollinators. This Euphorbia grows in sunny well drained soil, while Aegopodium podagraria grows in a shade to part shade. The one feature they have in common is variegated leaves.

Aegipodium podagraria
Peggy Singlemann
Aegipodium podagraria is invasive in some northern states up into the northeastern states. A quick check of your state’s invasive species list will let you know if you should grow it in your garden.

This experience always leaves me wondering about gardeners who rely solely on common names. I wonder about new gardeners, too. Can you understand why our common names can set a gardener up for failure even before they leave the garden center?

A few years ago, I was visiting gardens in the United Kingdom. Of course, I checked out a local garden center! I was enjoying the feast for my eyes of the wide variety of plants: The garden center was as beautiful as the gardens I toured. While walking around I happened to pause near a mother and son, about 4 years old. While standing there the child said: “Look mommy, there are the Chamaecyparis!”. I was shocked, because in the US not only would the child not know the word Chamaecyparis, but typically his mother would not know which plant it was! While resisting the urge to hug the little gardener I realized common names in the UK and Europe just didn’t exist, they use the botanical name — the plant’s real name. BTW, they were looking at a false cypress, an evergreen plant with many species and different growth habits. The common names for specific species range from Lawson cypress, Japanese false-cypress, Sawara false-cypress and our native Atlantic white-cedar. That last one, by the way, has four common names alone but is truly Chamaecyparis thyoides.

Can you see how confusing common names can be?

By using only a common name, an unsuspecting gardener could buy a plant that grows from 18” tall to 40’ or more — and let’s not even talk about the different shapes, colors or growing conditions.

My last example is one I just experienced. As I write this newsletter, I am traversing the Erie Canal in New York via boat. While enjoying lunch along the waterside, there was a beautifully landscaped park across from the restaurant. In the park were beds of annual flowering plants in full bloom, many of them native to New York State. There was this grouping of different Coreopsis varieties and I commented on it to my husband. I overheard someone nearby refer to them as tickseed, which, along with calliopsis, is the common name for this plant. However, tickseed is also the common name for plants in the genus Bidens sp., Corispermum sp., and Desmodium sp. All four of these plants, Coreopsis included, have different growth habits and thrive in various growing conditions. Saying you want to grow “tickseed” could mean a sun-loving flowering annual or one of a variety of plants which do not have showy flowers.

There are 4 different species of Coreopsis commonly called Tickseed. Combining different varieties of the annual Coreopsis tinctoria brightens the garden until frost.

However, all of these plants have seeds that stick to just about everything passing by. Taking the time to learn the botanical name of a plant will dispel the confusion. To further bring the point home, please realize plants in the genus Bidens have eight common names. The North American native plants in the genus Corispermum are referred to by three common names and plants in the genus Desmodium are referred to by four different common names.

I don’t know about you, but my mind is spinning!

The way I learn a new plant name is by labeling the plant and then reviewing the name as I work around it. I use a weatherproof marker to write out the botanical name. Some gardeners cut up old blinds to write on; others purchase plastic or metal labels because wooden one’s rot. Plant labels are available at your local garden center, but you may have to request them. I put the label in the ground at the base of the plant, written side turned away from the sun to reduce fading. I put the tag that came with the plant in a shoe box after writing the date of purchase on the tag — it’s my simple recordkeeping system. As you review the plant name, please don’t worry about pronunciation because professionals pronounce botanical names differently, too. Out of respect we do not correct one another because very few of us studied Latin.

Don’t be intimidated, give it a try because with time you can do this!

Happy Gardening,


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