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Botanical names really are easier than common names

Cleome hassleriana 'Violet Queen' - or Pink Queen 'Violet Queen'? Image ©Mr Fothergill's SeedsToday I’m working on a project that requires the plants I’m writing about to be organized alphabetically, by common name.

This quickly turns up two big problems:
1.    What is the correct common name for the plants I need to include?
2.    Some entirely different plants share the same common name.

In Britain, common names are used far less than they are here in the US – and very often they’re different. And in different parts of North America, different common names can be used for the same plant. So I turn to the USDA Plants Database, which gives common names for native and introduced plants, even for many rarely seen species.

I need to check Cleome. In Britain, we tend to call the various forms of that impressive tall annual Cleome hassleriana – well, we tend to simply call them Cleome… or perhaps occasionally Spider Flower. But, not very helpfully, Spider Flower is a name also used for those Australian shrubs, Grevillea. OK, confusion is unlikely, but if the plants are listed by common name, the varieties of Cleome and Grevillea - two entirely unrelated plants – would be listed together as Spider Flower as if they were forms of the same plant. Not helpful.

But the USDA Plants Database turns everything upside down by revealing that in North America the common name for Cleome hassleriana - is Pink Queen. Now, there’s a popular old heirloom variety of Cleome hassleriana called ‘Pink Queen’. So we’re in the bizarre position of having to list this plant as Pink Queen ‘Pink Queen’… And not only is there also Pink Queen ‘Purple Queen’ but Pink Queen ‘White Queen’ and Pink Queen ‘Violet Queen’. Makes no sense at all.

Botanical names may sometimes turn out to be tongue-twisters – but Pink Queen ‘Purple Queen’? I don’t think so.


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feijoa fruit

Well, yes, botanical names are more precise than common ones so are easier than the common names. You are going really great! Keep it up!


I don't know what the USDA is smoking, my experiences with cleome nomenclature here in the Midwest exactly match what you describe for Britain. Often 'cleome' sometimes 'spider flower' and 'pink queen' is just a cultivar name.


Let me tell you when I tried to find out a few things about the Ruscus aculeatus, since I intended to make a herbal potion out of it. So, I tried to search with the common name, butcher's broom. Well, I got a few results. Then I saw that it's also called (let me count them out):

1. Sweet Bloom
2. Jew's Myrtle
3. Pettigree
4. Kneeholy
5. Knee Holly
6. Kneeholm
7. Box Holly
8. Fragon


I found out that all of these names are pretty well used for that little bush, and they are quite territorial about it.

Just call it Ruscus and be done with it! God!

Graham Rice

Exactly, Cathy. Of course, there's a rich heritage of local common names - I know about those in Britain in particular through two wonderful books by the poet Geoffrey Grigson and from Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica. Perhaps there's an American book on the names used before the country was settled from Europe.

These old local names often have fascinating folklore connections but are completely useless when trying to discuss a plant with someone whose local name for it is different from yours. That's why scientific names are invaluable.

How many different plants are called bluebell? Twenty?

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