February 2018

How do you say that?


Among garden writers and others in the green industry, there’s an ongoing discussion about whether to use botanical names when talking about plants. Some think it is off-putting and others think it helps consumers make the right plant selection.

Way back when I first started writing about gardening, a reader sent me a question about a snowball bush. I answered it as if it were a hydrangea, which is what we called a snowball bush when I was growing up. Well, a snowball bush also is a viburnum, which several readers subsequently pointed out with letters stuffed with clippings from plant catalogs.

About the same time, Jan Glimn Lacy, a noted, local botanical illustrator, chided me for not using the botanical names. Using them would add more specificity and a sense of professionalism to the columns, she said. I’ve been using the Latin names ever since.

These names help guide us when purchasing plants. For instance, ‘Cinnamon Snow’ hellebore (Helleborus ballardiae) tells us precisely which lenten rose we are talking about. Or, it pays to know that the southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) is not reliably winter hardy in central Indiana, but the sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana) is.

A common concern among gardeners is how to pronounce the scientific names. Fine Gardening magazine has an audio pronunciation guide for dozens of plants and Dave’s Garden Botanary, an online botanical dictionary. Of course, there are botany dictionaries and pronunciation guides of the book type, too.

Most of all, don’t worry if you don’t know how to pronounce the words. Make a list of the plants’ common and scientific names, if you have them. Use the list when shopping at garden centers or online retailers.

And, even when you know the botanical name, there may be different ways to pronounce it. Clem’-a-tis may be the preferred pronunciation for clematis, but there are many, many of us who say cle-ma’-tis.


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