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Naming trees and plants is such sweet sorrow

Posted Tuesday, May 24, 2005 - 10:20 am

By Durant Ashmore

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"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare.

How profound is Shakespeare speaking to us in the twenty-first century? Plants bloom, give aromas, prevent erosion and create beauty regardless of the names we humans call them. Problems arise not with the plants, but with us. In many cases the names we give to plants mean very different things to different people.

Plants have common and scientific names. Both of these names can be descriptive, but in many cases they can be misleading. The rule followed in this column is to use the name which is most frequently used in naming a plant. At times, to lessen areas of confusion, both names will be listed.

You may be surprised to know just how frequently scientific names are used in common usage. Gardenia (named for Charlestonian Alexander Garden) is the scientific name for cape jasmine, but nobody uses this term. The common name for nandina is heavenly bamboo.

Some people have an aversion to using nandina in their landscape. Landscape designers know this and will sometimes label nandina as heavenly bamboo on their plans. Nobody could reject a plant with a name like heavenly bamboo.

In some cases knowing the scientific name of a plant can provide very descriptive information. Ilex is the scientific name for holly. Ilex rotunda means round holly. Ilex rotundifolia means roundleaf holly (note to children and schoolteachers: There really is justification for taking Latin.)

Euonymous is a plant that is very variable in its form. It can be a shrub or a vine, it can live in sun or shade, it can be deciduous or not, and it is found as a native or introduced plant. Euonymous Americana is a native decidous shrub. Euonymous coloratus is a colorful vine native to Asia. Because it is euonymous you know that both can tolerate sun or shade.

Confusion arises usually when a common name is applied to several different botanical species. Consider the use of the word myrtle. Crape myrtle and wax myrtle go very well when used together in the same landscape, and by observation you could conclude that they are botanically related. However, they are not even close. Crape myrtle is native to India and wax myrtle is native to the coastal plain of South Carolina.

To further confuse the issue, folks from Pennsylvania call a certain evergreen, blue flowering groundcover myrtle. In the South the common name for this groundcover is periwinkle, but it is just as frequently called by its scientific name of Vinca minor.

We are not out of the woods yet. When you speak of vinca, you may be referring to Vinca minor, or you may be referring to a sun-loving annual which has profuse blooms of white or purple flowers. The scientific name of annual vinca is Catharanthus rosea. Vinca, therefore, is both a common and scientific term describing vastly different plants depending on the context.

In addition to confusion with the written names of plants, there is confusion over pronunciation, quite frequently due to regional differences.

Take Liriope for example. People from Georgia and the Low Country pronounce it Li-ri-op' with a long "o." People from the Upstate and particularly Clemson graduates pronounce it Li-ri'-o-pe with a long second "i," a long "o" and a long "e." Some authors have chosen the middle ground and have tried to combine the two pronunciations (adding to more confusion) by pronouncing the word Li-ri-o'-pe with a long "o" and long "e."

The weight of the argument here should go to the Clemson graduates being a Georgia graduate this is hard for me to say. Liriope is a Greek based word, and the final "e" is pronounced on Greek-based words (i.e. Penelope).

Of course, you can avoid this argument altogether by always saying monkey grass and eliminating the word liriope from your vocabulary forever.

Just be aware that different names mean different plants to different people. Try to avoid confusion, but remember, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Editor's note: Columnist Durant Ashmore, MLA, of Fountain Inn, is certified by the South Carolina Nursery Association. He can be reached at 243-3446 or at

Wednesday, June 23  

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