Nomenclature (Natural Order)
next-door-neighbour often admires the plants in my garden, and once
asked me what the plant with the black leaves was, growing
by the large rock. I told him it was Ophiopogon
planiscarpus ‘Nigrescens’ and dug him
up a small clump with roots which he gratefully accepted, but he declined
a label to go with it. “Why don’t your alpine plants have
proper names?” he asked. “I don’t know how you remember
all those Latin names; I just couldn’t be bothered.” he
said, shrugging his shoulders. I briefly explained the logic and reason
why giving flora and fauna two Latin names benefits everyone in the
world; but he wasn’t impressed!
generic name comes first, and starts with a capital letter; the specific
name comes second, without a capital letter; e.g. Lupinus
breweri. Lupinus is the botanical name for the lupin,
and as there are over 300 species of lupin, ranging from annuals,
perennials and sub-shrubs, mainly from North America. To just call
it a lupin wouldn’t identify it from the other 300 plus lupins;
but mention Lupinus
breweri to an alpine botanist in Norway, New Zealand,
Argentina or Ireland and they will be able to distinguish it from
all the others. As the vast majority of alpine or wild plants don’t
have a common or local name the best way is to use the only universal
language available – namely Latin. Botanical Latin names are
recognized globally. Another good reason is that the majority of the
world’s plants do not have common English names! The uniqueness
of a scientific name is vital as it prevents a huge amount of confusion.
The same common name is often used for more than one plant. For example,
the name ‘bluebell’ is given to Hyacinthoides non-scripta,
which carpets English woods in spring. However, in Scotland the ‘bluebell’
is Campanula rotundifolia, a delicate flower of dry, open ground.
If you were reading something that mentioned bluebells, how would
you know which plant it was referring too?.
So knowing the
meaning and background of the Latin names of plants can often provide
information that would otherwise be obscure. Many of the specific
epithets are sometimes easy to understand and interpret. They describe
habitat, place of origin, colour, the shape of the leaves, number
of parts, size, and often the name of the person who discovered or
introduced the plant; and so on. Most of these names are Latin, but
unfortunately, to confuse the issue, some are Greek, Arabic or Roman.
We won’t go into the various orders and subdivisions of plants, as this would take up many pages and would possibly be of interest only to the really dedicated botanist. Suffice to say, that each Order is divided into Families, and these are plants which have many botanical features in common, and is the highest classification normally used. At this level, the similarity between plants is often easily recognisable by the average, (but interested!) gardener. The number of plant families varies, according to the botanist whose classification you follow. Some botanists recognise only 150 or so families, preferring to classify other similar plants as sub-families, while others recognise nearly 500 plant families. Enough said on that matter; let us now move on!
Plant within one plant Family (Natural Order) can vary widely in type; they can be flowers, trees, shrubs or vegetables etc. Take the family Leguminosae (Fabaceae) – the pea family, for example; which has peas and beans in the form of food; and sweet-peas, Anthyllis, Astragalus, Lupinus, Mimosa, Oxytropis, Robinia, Ulex, Wisteria and many others providing the flowers; whilst the clover growing in your lawn is a weed. This is the third largest family of flowering plants, (after Orchidaceae and Asteraceae).
The family Liliaceae has of course, the lilies; also tulips and hyacinth; (other choice flowers for the alpine enthusiast are – Calochortus, Colchicum, Erythronium, Fritillaria, Galanthus, Hosta, Trillum and Uvularia; to name but a few. Whilst the food in this family is in the form of onions, garlic, leeks, chives and asparagus.
Another one of the largest plant families is Rosaceae, which includes all the cultivated and wild roses, along with edible fruit like apples, blackberries and strawberries. Trees and shrubs are also included; like the hawthorn, rowan, potentillia, pyracanthus and prunus. Amongst the many alpine plants are – Acaena, Astilbe, Cotoneaster and Dryas.
In the above examples I have only mentioned three plant families; there are hundreds of others, and should you wish to expand your knowledge further, there are many excellent books on the subject, and of course, the vast resources of the internet!
So there you have it, my meager attempt to introduce you into the world of plant nomenclature. There is a little more to it than what I have put on this page, but you will have gone a long way if you started with knowing nothing and have understood and got something from this Nomenclature page, and the Portraits of Alpine Plants page on this website. It is a fascinating journey of discovery, and my love and passion for these wonderful plants of the mountains, prairies, forests and meadows of the world has been enriched and expanded by the knowledge gained in getting to know the names, and the actual meaning of the names. I get an overwhelming satisfaction in seeing the seeds of these gems germinating in the pots, their little green shoots pushing through the light covering of grit; and knowing that it is from a seed collected in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho or Utah, in picturesque wild locations like the Big Horn Mountains, Medicine Bow Mountains, or the Laramie Plains. Or it might be China, The Andes, or Mount Olympus. The elated feeling one gets when the plant in question flowers for the very first time! A minute part of a distant location growing in one’s own garden, taking energy and light from the very same sun as its relations thousands of miles away on the other side of the world. I do firmly believe that the closer you get to knowing as much as you can about these plants, the greater will be your success in growing them!
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