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Do Latin plant names put you off…?

Perovskia atriplicifolia – just as beautiful as a sweet pea, but not an easy name to remember.


If you ask people in the street what their favourite plants are, you’ll likely hear Roses, Lavender, Sweet Peas, but why is that? It can’t be because they’re the most beautiful – beauty is subjective. So what makes them stand out over and above other beautiful plants?

One could argue that Ceratostigma willmotianum or Anemanthele lessoniana are just as beautiful, but can you tell me what they look like? Can you even pronounce them? If you’re a beginner gardener, you’ll take one look at those names and your brain will say – Does Not Compute.

Give a pretty plant a straightforward name and it will become well known – Alliums are a perfect example. Bluebells too were recently voted England’s favourite wildflower. And why not – they have ‘the holy trinity’ – they look great, they’re easy to grow but crucially they have an easy name to remember and pronounce. Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Spire’ is another gorgeous plant and should be better known…but that name.

No matter how beautiful a plant is – if it has a difficult name it will intimidate beginners. Beginner gardeners don’t ask for Sarcococca hookeriana var.humilis at the garden centre – they daren’t; what if they get it wrong – the shame.

Nothing else in the world of gardening is referred to by its Latin name – Hostas are never ruined by Arion distinctus – they’re just slugs. Other industries have Latin names but don’t use them either – Jamie Oliver never talks of how to cook a roast leg of Ovis aries at Easter. And Chris Packham, on hearing a blackbird singing on Springwatch never refers to it as Turdus merula. So why do gardeners insist on using Latin plant names?

Taxonomists tell us Latin plant names are essential because it is a universal language which enables those involved in commercial horticulture to order Verbascum bombiciferum from Kazakhstan. But surely only those in the industry need to use it rather than the rest of us. Trees are known by their common names – Ash, Oak, Beech but it hasn’t sent the world of commercial horticulture into meltdown.

I’m not saying we should stop using Latin plant names; they’re useful if you work in the industry professionally. But I’m talking about encouraging beginners in to gardening by providing plants with easier names as well as their Latin ones. Surely this will make gardening more accessible at entry level. If people then choose to take their learning to a greater level, they’ll learn the Latin names.

Look how the interest in allotments has surged in recent years – all these plants are referred to by their common names – apples, pears, rosemary, sage, leeks, potatoes, carrots. Would this have happened if carrots were known as Daucus carota subsp. sativus?

If these plants have done it why can’t the rest of the plant world do the same? Even humans have proved this theory. If you are a beauty with a howler of a name, you change it; Norma Jean became Marilyn Monroe, Archie Leach became Cary Grant, Maurice Micklewhite became Michael Caine and Reginald Dwight became Elton John.

Gardening and being around plants is good for wellbeing; let’s spread that important message and encourage beginners, not put obstacles in their way.

Nick Turrell - The Garden Doctor

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About Nick

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Nick Turrell is an accomplished gardening journalist and designer. His articles have been featured in publications such as The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The RHS Magazine, and the Daily Telegraph.

 

He has also designed gardens all over the UK, including the Bowden Park Estate in Wiltshire. With a keen eye for design and a passion for plants, Nick brings his expertise to the world of gardening.

Nick has also appeared on both television and radio as a gardening expert. He co-presented a gardening program on BBC 1 with Jane Asher, and has shared his knowledge on BBC Radio 2's Steve Wright in the Afternoon and BBC Radio Leicester which is actually where Nick and Andy met.

 

His enthusiasm for gardening is infectious, and he strives to inspire others to get outside and enjoy the natural world.

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