The Name Game

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By Charles Kidder

Whenever I refer to a plant for the first time in any particular column, I typically use its common name, then follow with its scientific name, for example, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). I am not including the scientific name just to show off, especially since I often have to look it up myself!  

The scientific name—often referred to as the Latin name, although many of the words were originally Greek—is the only way to be sure we are all talking about the same plant. Appealing as they often are, common names vary tremendously for many plants. For example, Calycanthus floridus goes by sweet shrub, Carolina allspice, bubby plant and boobie plant (no letters about that last one, please). And of course, these are just the names one might encounter in the United States. If you go even to the UK, names might differ greatly, and of course in non-English-speaking countries, all bets are off. So, particularly for professional botanists and horticulturists, the scientific name is absolutely indispensable. I wouldn’t count myself among either of those groups; still, I was glad to find scientific names on plant labels in Japan, since I found their common names indecipherable.

Scientific names are the same around the world, but they can change over time; unfortunately, they were not on the stone tablets Moses brought down from the mount. Change does not happen by someone’s whim, however. There are academics who specialize in either taxonomy, the naming of plants (or really any organism), or systematics, the relationships among different species or other groups.

Traditionally, much taxonomy relied on flower structure, often on characteristics not visible to the naked eye, but visible with a hand lens or a low-powered microscope. But now biology allows scientists to peer deep into genes and see how much genetic material plant A shares with plant B. This has led to some major restructuring of plant groups and their names.

Consider the Aster Disaster, for instance. Until a few years ago, all asters had the scientific name Aster, and life was good. Then, scientists got busy and determined that the only true Asters were from the Old World. Related plants from the New World were split into different genera and ended up with horrific names like Eurybia and Symphotrichon. (Don’t those just roll off the tongue, now?)

At times like these, botanists and horticulturists often part ways. The latter group, especially plant purveyors, appreciates some stability in plant names, especially those that are easy for lay people to pronounce and remember. And as gardeners, these names are not just of scientific interest. When we set out to buy plants, we may want to be sure we get the same one we just spotted at a botanical garden or in a gardening publication. Or we bought a great plant last season, and now we want to get more of the same. So, plant labels or catalogs may continue listing the former scientific names along with their replacements.

Everything we’ve talked about so far applies to what are known as “straight species,” that is, just the plain old plant that you might find in the wild. Things really get interesting when we start looking at cultivated plants, especially the varieties that have been developed by horticulturists. These cultivars—a contraction of “cultivated variety”—require names of their own, as well. Cultivar names are affixed in accordance with the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. Among other rules, cultivar names should be in a modern language, not Latin; also, they appear in single quotation marks and are not written in italics.

Let’s say that after years of careful breeding, I have developed a great new purple coneflower, which is officially named Echinacea purpurea ‘Really Big,’ owing to its flowers being as big as dinner plates. Despite all my hard work to develop this plant, I don’t own the name, and anyone else can propagate and sell it.

Unless, that is, I obtain a patent for this new plant. That’s why you might see something like PP 16235 affixed to a plant name. (That patent applies to Echinacea ‘Sunrise,’ incidentally.)  PP stands for Plant Patent, while PPAF means Plant Patent Applied For. Patented plants cannot be legally propagated without paying royalties to the appropriate person or entity.

We get into somewhat murkier waters when we consider trademarked plants; these are typically denoted by the TM following the plant’s name. (According to one nurseryman, trademarks are not valid when applied to a single cultivar, but it’s okay to trademark a series of different cultivars. I am not sure I totally followed his argument, but I am not a lawyer. Legalities aside, there are a slew of trademarked plants out there.)  Assuming it has not also been patented, trademarks only protect the name of a plant, not the rights to the plant itself. So, if one person trademarks his rose as Wowie ZowieTM, I can sell the same plant as Holy MoleyTM and hope that you’ll be persuaded that my plant is not only different from the other, but clearly better.

If you flip through gardening magazines, you’ll see that trademarked plants and series are the big thing. Glossy ads feature stunning photography, not just of the plants, but of horticultural rock stars touting them. The Proven Winners series is just one name that comes to mind. Last year they introduced a Buddleia hybrid known as ‘Blue Chip,’ also known by their trademark, Lo & BeholdTM. Many gardeners would prefer this butterfly bush, since it stays at 3’-4’ ft tall and is nearly sterile.

Part of what we are seeing with all this plant “branding” may indeed be improved plants—by most definitions—but much is marketing and hype. Pay close  attention to plant labels and catalog descriptions, as well as horticultural articles. And remember that names like Crème BruleeTM and Key Lime PieTM are meant to entice, as well as to inform.