Salvia rosmarinus 'Huntington Carpet'

What’s in a Name?

The common names for plants can be fun – Monkey Flower, Bear’s Britches, Mother-in-law’s tongue. Even some official plant names can cause a snicker or two – Silybum, or given the wrong pronunciation – instead of superb-um, you say super-bum.

But we all know the reason for using the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. It is based on the system developed by Linnaeus and ends confusion about exactly which plant is being talking about.

Today, names are again becoming confusing and in some cases unhelpful to buys and growers alike. There are times when people cannot identify the plants they want because their names have changed. Some people acknowledge the changes while others don’t – even within botanical spheres. The system has broken down.

So, why is this happening? Some of it has always happened as plant families or genera were studied more closely. They found plants that had either been placed incorrectly to start with, or earlier classifiers had missed an important differentiation. Sometimes, the same plant grown under very different conditions will appear to be different species, when in fact it was nothing other than a mechanism for coping or for attracting different pollinators.


But today, there is another, much bigger reclassification happening. In the past, genera and species were defined based on appearance. The primary differentiator was the pollination strategies and thus the structure of the flowers, and the ways in which the plants sexually propagated themselves. That is no longer the case.

Researchers now have access to many more tools than they had in the past, including being able to look at the entire DNA sequence of the plants. Botanists now want to organize plants based on their evolutionary relationships to each other. This is leading to mass re-organizations and thus name changes.

I am an amateur gardener and quite frankly I am getting sick of it. I totally see the value of what they are doing, but they need to do it in their world. They need to create their own naming system and language but leave the one that exists alone, at least for now. They can just as easily create their new hierarchies and come to consensus within the scientific community without changing the current names.

If and when they come to a complete consensus, then maybe a switch can be made between the old and new. Then provide a transition period when both sets of names are used. Until then, we should use the current names that identify plants, and the botanists can create a cross index. This is exactly the same as the one that exists between common names and scientific names today.

So leave Rosemary as Rosmarinus officinalis instead of Salvia Rosmarinus. You deal with moving it in your tree and leave our tree alone.

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