Check out our latest magazine... Read Online

Blooming Times: What's in a Name?

Botanical Latin may seem daunting, but it’s designed to be helpful and informative, says Flo Whitaker

Humans have cultivated flowers for thousands of years. Over the centuries, plants have acquired ‘common’ names, many of which are charmingly rustic and regional in variation. For instance, a Scottish bluebell changes its name to harebell when growing south of the border. Without a formal botanical language, confusion reigns. Bluebells are members of the hyacinth family, whereas harebells are part of the campanula tribe, so which plant is being discussed?

Latin names are practical, not snobbishly highbrow, although there’s always one pompous ‘haughty-cultural’ twerp at a dinner party who starts banging on about his annoying clumps of Bellis perennis, (sensible people call them lawn daisies). Ignore him, or retaliate with some tongue-twistingly obscure fern names - that’ll shut him up.

Another example of an unfathomable plant is the quaintly-named ‘Mexican Daisy’. It seems straightforward enough - until you realise the moniker is used to describe rudbeckia, erigeron, gerbera, helenium, tithonia, osteospermum - and many others. People also have casual attitudes regarding geography. ‘Mexican’ is frequently substituted with ‘American’, ‘African’ or ‘Spanish’. Ask “Will my Mexican Daisy survive outdoors in winter?” and I can only offer a shrugging response, “Dunno, it depends what you’re referring to”. You’ll doubtless walk away, tutting and muttering, “Well, I thought she was an expert …”

A Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, (1707 - 1778) developed a method of naming plants that, with minor adaptations, remains in use today. Simplicity is the key to its success, with plants first categorised by genus, (plants that share common ancestors), then sub-divided into species, (family groups within that ancestry). Our little lawn daisy is a long-persisting member of the Bellis family, hence Bellis perennis. For the avoidance of doubt, genus names always start with a capital letter. The species is shown in lower case.

Now, let’s pretend a purple-coloured lawn daisy was discovered. That might be classified as Bellis perennis purpurea, (purple). However, if I deliberately bred a purple daisy and modestly named it after myself, that would be expressed as Bellis perennis ‘Flo’s Purple’. Here, the suffix is capitalised and enclosed within quotation marks to denote a cultivar, (made by human/artificial intervention).

Plants that are truly wild have their entire name shown in italics, such as Quercus robur, the common oak, (robur means strong/hard). Botanical names can also usefully describe characteristics, for instance; fragrans – pleasantly scented, foetidus – malodorous, grandis – large, minimus – tiny, floribunda - multi-flowered. Other words indicate a plant’s preferred environment; maritima – seashore, alpinus – alpine, sylvatica – woodland/forest.

Latin is often dismissed as a pointless, ‘dead’ language, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our modern-day vocabularies have their roots firmly planted in ancient Latin and Greek. Learning some basic botanical terminology will help you make informed decisions at the garden centre.

More from Homes and Gardens

  • Home Style: Pastures New

    The grass really was greener for this family, who left behind their recently remodelled London house for a new life in the country

  • Homes Extra: Let There Be Light

    Read on for the latest in home and garden lighting ideas for a bright and up to date space, says Sara Whatley

  • Blooming Times: Wisteria Hysteria

    With its exquisitely fragrant, show-stopping blooms, wisteria is the queen of spring climbers – yet it can be frustratingly sulky and thuggish. Flo Whitaker offers a quick troubleshooting guide to floral success

  • Home Style: Home on Wheels

    A plot on the family farm with stunning marshland views was the ideal spot for Freddie Pack and Katie McNie to build their new home – a cabin on wheels

  • Home Style: Modern Outlook

    Downsizing couple Pauline and Bill chose practicality over space, but didn’t compromise on their love of mid-century style

  • Blooming Times: Dahlia Mania

    Inexpensive, hardworking plants with blooms in a vast array of colours and shapes - no flower is perfect, but dahlias come pretty close, says Flo Whitaker

  • Home Style: Time to Heal

    After losing her husband, Tracy Nors threw all her energies into renovating a period terrace in the pretty town of Rye

  • Blooming Times: Spring into Summer

    Say the word ‘bulb’ and thoughts of spring immediately come to mind - but there are some bulbus characters to plant now for summer colour. Flo Whitaker selects a few of her favourites

  • Home Style: Farm Stay

    While living in a tiny cabin on the family farm, Freddie and Katie Pack saved up to build their dream house on a plot a few fields away

  • Home Style: Romantic Vision

    Tim and Jenny Backshall rescued a derelict timber-framed hall house, respecting its history while future proofing for generations to come

  • Homes Extra: Dining Style

    Sara Whatley is singing the praises of the dining table and looking at different styling options for it

  • Blooming Times: Spring Fever

    February is often labelled the cruellest month in the horticultural calendar. However, Flo Whitaker suggests there is still plenty of opportunity for growth

  • Home Style: Forest Idyll

    Moving the kitchen became the start of a much bigger project for the Buckinghams, as it created opportunities to change their new home

  • Gardening: The Benefits of Hedges

    Gardeners are a flower-obsessed lot, greedily seeking out the latest, brightest blooms. That’s all very well, but ephemeral flowers need a stage to perform on. Plant a hedge - they add structure, benefit wildlife and look good all year round.

  • Home Style: Treasure Trove

    The interior of a quaint, white-washed cottage in Sussex has been transformed into a colourful home full of character by a couple of keen collectors.

  • Blooming Times: Awesome Alliums

    Easy-going and beloved by bees - now’s the perfect time to plant allium bulbs for a spectacular display next year. Flo Whitaker picks some of her favourites.

  • Homes Extra: Truly, Madly, Deeply

    Fall in love with your soft furnishings again this autumn and make it the season to snuggle up in style, says Sara Whatley

  • Home Style: Clear Vision

    Jacqui Elliott Williams has relished bringing this elegant Victorian house back to life with confident ideas, stylish choices and creative flair.

  • Homes Extra: Parasol Power

    Pretty parasols are enjoying their moment in the sun and making our outside spaces spin with style, says Sara Whatley.

  • Blooming Times Garden Lore - Fact or Fiction?

    The horticultural world abounds with bad advice and old wife’s tales, but some pronouncements are scientifically sound, says Flo Whitaker, as she asks, “True, or false?”