Plant names

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.

The good, the bad - and the chrysanthemums

Chrysanthemum Igloo Series - No, not Dendranthema. Image ©Blooms of BressinghamBack in 2007, I sounded off here about the American branch of Blooms of Bressingham exhuming the dead body of the name Dendranthema. This was the new name for Chrysanthemum conceived by botanists taking a hard line following the rules of botanical nomenclature. There was an outcry.

The botanists were sent to bed without any supper to consider the error of their ways. And, instead of making them sulky and resentful (as it did me)… it worked! The name Chrysanthemum was restored and Dendranthema was dead and buried for good. Excellent. Or so we thought.

Then Blooms of Bressingham dug up Dendranthema and arbitrarily applied it to hardy garden types of Chrysanthemum, like its own Igloo Series (right, click to enlarge). And they’re still at it. Everyone else, just about, was happy to go back to using the name Chrysanthemum for them all.

Chrysanthemum 'Clara Curtis' - No, this is not a Leucanthemum. Image © (all rights reserved)However… Now there’s a new case of pretending a plant is not a chrysanthemum. One of the largest wholesale horticultural outfits in the world, The Ball Horticultural Company, have decided that ‘Clara Curtis’ (left, click to enlarge), that familiar and dependable hardy garden chrysanthemum - is a Shasta daisy! They list it as Leucanthemum ‘Clara Curtis’. You’d think such a huge company would know about plants. Apparently not.

But I tell you who does know about plants, and their names – Hortax. Hortax is the handy name for the Horticultural Taxonomy Group. This is group of European botanists - independent, but linked to the Royal Horticultural Society - with an enthusiastic interest in the naming of garden plants. They’ve just re-launched their website at, and there you’ll find easy-to-follow explanations of all the worldwide rules that govern the naming of garden plants and plenty more great plant naming info.

Hortax has also launched a forum and anyone around the world with an interest in the names of garden plants can participate in discussions, ask questions, help others, and get advice on plant names from the people who know. I know they'd welcome more participants from outside Europe. And the Hortax members are not the dry-as-dust botanists of long ago, botanists who preferred to lock themselves in herbariums and never set foot in gardens. These are gardeners who are botanists, botanists who are gardeners.

And if The Ball Horticultural Company had checked with Hortax, they would never have decided that ‘Clara Curtis’ was a Shasta daisy. It’s a Chrysanthemum!

Shamrocks and four-leaf clovers

Four leaf purple clover - Trifolium repens 'Purpurascens Quadrifolium' Image ©GardenPhotos.comJust a quickie for St Patrick’s Day on the four-leaf version of the Shamrock. Got to be extra lucky, right?

The Irish Shamrock is usually what the rest of us call white clover, Trifolium repens, or sometimes lesser clover, T. dubium. But there’s at least one variety that always produces four leaves, and sometimes five.

Trifolium repens 'Purpurascens Quadrifolium' – a bit of a mouthful, I know -not only has almost all its leaves with four divisions, there are sometimes five. What’s more, they’re purple with a slender green rim (left, click to enlarge).  It’s very pretty.

But what about that clover in the top of the picture? That’s ‘Green Ice’, one of a number of attractive varieties that turned up by chance in a project designed to develop better varieties for forage.

These are both great foliage plants, but susceptible to attack from weevils which nip the edges of the leaves – and also attack garden peas.

But hey, seems like cheating, doesn’t it, to actually plant a four-leaf clover? Don’t you have to find them by chance for them to be lucky?

How to kill a Leyland hedge

Leyland Cypress, hedge. Image ©
Leyland cypress is a really useful hedging evergreen. It grows quickly, it’s a good color for a background to flowers, and it makes an effective screen and windbreak. The problem is that it keeps growing and growing and growing. Even on poor soil it can grow 3ft/90cm a year. The tallest is over 130ft/40m tall and still growing. And so, of course, it has to be trimmed regularly to keep it to a modest size.

With regular trimming you can keep it to very reasonable 6-8ft/1.8-2.4m high. But if you let it go for a few years, and then try to cut it back hard – this is what happens (above, click to enlarge). Not a pretty sight.

Why not plant an Arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ (sometimes known as ‘Emerald Green’), instead? It’s a good colour, less vigorous but not slow, and needs much less trimming to keep it to a manageable height.

Plant name note (deep breath, please): Leyland cypress was for many decades known botanically as xCupressocyparis leylandii – a hybrid between the Californian Cupressus macrocarpa and the Alaskan Chamaecyparis nootkatensis. The hybrid generic name combines of the generic names of the two parent plants, which helps grasp what’s going on. Ah, but then…

Ten years ago botanists decided that Chamaecyparis nootkatensis was so distinct from other species of Chamaecyparis that it needed a genus of its own, so it became Xanthocyparis nootkanensis. Then a few years later, after further botanical brain boiling, another generic name, Callitropsis, was proposed.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, whenever Chamaecyparis nootkatensis is put in a different genus the botanical name of the hybrid, Leyland cypress, must also change. So, if you think Chamaecyparis nootkatensis should really be Xanthocyparis nootkanensis then Leyland cypress becomes ×Cuprocyparis leylandii. But if you think Chamaecyparis nootkatensis should really be Callitropsis nootkatensis, then you probably also think Cupressus macrocarpa should be Callitropsis macrocarpa – which makes the Leyland cypress become Callitropsis x leylandii! Got that? Have I got that right (steam comes out of his ears)?

No no, hold the rotten tomatoes... it’s not my fault... It’s the rules!

Help with crab apples, please

Mystery Malus Number One. © (All rights reserved) I'm having some trouble with crab apples. Not that they've got some terrible disease or the voles are eating them as well as everything else, no.

I have some great pictures of their flowers that I'd like to use - but I don't know what varieties they are. I know some expert plantspeople check in here, so can anyone help?

The first one (left, click to enlarge) has distinctive bi-colored flowers which I thought I'd be able to find, but not so far - not even in Father John Fiala's monumental book Flowering Crabapples.
Mystery Malus Number Two. © (All rights reserved)
The second one (right, click to enlarge) we thought might be 'Golden Hornet' but the  flowers seem a little large, a little too blushed, and the foliage a little pale.

Finally, a very prolific one with darkish leaves (left below, click to enlarge) – not with purple foliage like 'Royalty' but with a purplish tint. It makes a neat rounded tree, with small Mystery Malus Number Three. © (All rights reserved) purple-red fruits. 'Lemoinei' perhaps? It's not an old tree, so perhaps one of the more recent ones.

Crab apples are just not something I know a huge amount about. So any help will be gratefully appreciated.

Name changes - don't you just love 'em?!

Cytisus battandieri,Argyrocytisus battandierii. Image © OK, it's the subject you love to hate… Your familiar plants have their names changed. Well, here's more - as reported in the latest issue of the The Plantsman magazine.

First thing – don’t shoot the messenger. And it's not the fault of the botanists, either, they're just doing research and applying the rules to what they find. It's all the fault of Carl Linnaeus. It was the great man who came up with the system that connects the name of every plant with its classification, with its relationship with other plants. And the result is that when science advances and we reach a new understanding of how plants relate to each other, sometimes the names have to change. That's all there is to it.

Now, I'm not going to go into all the background of the latest modest changes – I'm just going to tell you what they are.

First, that lovely honey scented shrub Cytisus battandierii. We can all see that it doesn't look much like other species of Cytisus. Well, now it's been decided that it's so very different that it deserves a genus all of its own. It's now Argyrocytisus battandierii (left, click to enlarge).

The black "iris", Hermodactylus tuberosus – finally it's been decided that it's really so similar to irises that Schizostylis coccinea, Hesperantha coccinia.Image ©GardenPhotos.comit's been placed irrevocably in Iris as Iris tuberosa. Belamcanda has moved into Iris as well.

And finally Schizostylis, invaluable late summer and fall flowering perennials for Britain and warmer zones in  the US. They've been moved into Hesperantha, so Schizostylis coccinea is now Hesperantha coccinea (right, click to enlarge).

Well, that wasn't so very bad was it? Or was it?

Brits don't grow New York's top roses

Rosa, rose, Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale, Korassenet, NYBG, Kordes. Image ©Kordes. Once I've looked through each issue of The American Gardener, the excellent member magazine from the American Horticultural Society, it goes - let's be honest - into the bathroom. Where it's perused again, now and then, before finally going on the shelf.

The other day I was looking through the March/April edition when I came again on the list of the top-rated roses at the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). Frankly, many of them I didn't know. Then I wondered: how many of these are well rated in Britain?

So I started to look them up. Top of the NYBG list is Brother's Grimm Fairy Tale (right, click to enlarge). It's not listed at all by the Royal Horticultural Society in Britain, a Google search turns up almost nothing. First thing – that rogue apostrophe. Its correct name does not have that apostrophe.

Turns out it has five, yes, five other names. All but one are selling names used in various countries – Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale is also sold as Eternal Flame (in Britain), Joli Tambour, Gremlin, and it was first sold in the USA as Gebrüder Grimm. And the one thing that ties them all together is the correct cultivar name, which is 'Korassenet'.

In roses, the cultivar name, in this case 'Korassenet', is often more like an originator's code name and in those cases the rose is never sold solely under that name. You may have noticed them all in my recent review of David Austin's new rose book.

Rosa,rose,Caramel Fairy Tale,'Korkinteral', NYBG, Kordes. Image ©Kordes. But the international naming rules that govern these things state that the cultivar name must always be given with whatever selling name is being used, so no one ends up buying the same rose under two different names. Bad for the home gardener, but a disaster for a nursery which might buy 500 of each. Unfortunately, The American Gardener list did not include the cultivar name, neither does the NYBG's own list.

So… Once I'd discovered its true cultivar name, via the invaluable Help Me Find Roses website, I was able to look it up in Britain and found that there's only one British supplier and it has no awards. Not very encouraging.

I did the same with the rest of the top five. Next on the NYBG list was Caramel Fairy Tale ('Korkinteral') Rosa,rose,Cinderella Fairy Tale,'Korfolbalt',Kordes. Image ©Kordes. (left, click to enlarge), also known as Caramella and Reminiscence - no British suppliers. Third on the list was Cinderella Fairy Tale ('Korfolbalt') (right, click to enlarge), also known as Cinderella and La Giralda - no British suppliers. Fourth came 'Ducher', from way back in 1869 when muddling about with names was never even considered – no British suppliers. And fifth came Easter Basket ('Meiopoten') – no British suppliers.

So, not only did the five top roses at the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the NYBG not have any awards or recommendations but only one was actually on sale in Britain – and from just one nursery.

And the research would have been far simpler if the names had been given as the international rules say they should be.

How "unique" is this new perennial?

Actaea,pachypoda,Misty Blue,dolls eyes,Mt Cuba. Image: ©Walters Gardens, Inc
Unique, or not?

Yesterday I was looking over the new introductions from the international perennials grower Darwin Perennials (Darwin Plants in Europe) and I noticed the new actaea that I’d written up over on my RHS New Plants blog back in February - Actaea pachypoda ‘Misty Blue’ (above, click to enlarge).

They descibe it as thus:
Cimicifuga pachypoda 'Misty Blue' Unique blue foliage, with white flowers in spring. In fall will make white berries on a little red stem. VERY Unique” (their CAPS)

It’s a lovely thing, but three points:

1.    Why do they call it Cimicifuga pachypoda ‘Misty Blue’? It’s true that a few years ago the two genera, Actaea and Cimicifuga were amalgamated – but under the name Actaea not under the name Cimicifuga. And this species was not placed in Cimicifuga even before the change, it’s always been an Actaea. So why confuse everyone by suddenly, out of the blue, calling it Cimicifuga - a name no longer valid? Aren't gardeners muddled enough by plant names?

2.    They describe it as "VERY unique" (their capitals) - which means it must be more unique than just, well, unique. So there must be other plants which are, perhaps, moderately unique or mainly unique or not very unique at all. No: it’s either unique, or it’s not unique. There’s either just the one, or there are more.
Actaea pachypoda 'Pewter and Pearls'. Image: ©
3.    In this case, as it happens, "not very unique at all" is more like it. There’s at least one other form of this species with that distinctive silvery/bluish foliage and it looks pretty much the same. Actaea pachypoda ‘Pewter and Pearls’ (above, click to enlarge) was selected by the British nurseryman Kevin Hughes and I spotted it at the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show. So ‘Misty Blue’ is, you might say, not "VERY unique" but only "slightly unique"! [The leaves are actually more similar in colour than my pictures suggest.]

I know, this might seem like pedantic and esoteric stuff. But we already have nurseries trumpeting as "new" plants which have been around for years. I'm just trying to keep them on their toes…

Either way, this/they is/are (a) lovely plants(s).

The Communist Lilacs

Graham Rice,lilac,syringa,russia,communist,Korok let Komsomola. Image © Lattah Nursery
 Browsing through an old copy of The Gardener magazine – Tom Cooper’s superb but short-lived venture put out by White Flower Farm a few years ago – I came across a piece entitled The Communist Lilacs!

It was by Peter Schneider (author of Taylor's Guide to Roses ) and discussed the range of large-flowered, super fragrant lilacs raised in Russia in the middle of the last century. I’d forgotten all about them. They sound fantastic - especially the names.

Obviously they were all originally named in Russian – but in English they have names like ‘Beauty of Moscow’, ‘Banner of Lenin’, ‘Soviet Arctic Region’ and, from 1958, originally ‘Korok let Komsomola’ - splendidly translated as ‘40th Anniversary of the Communist Youth League’!

Now I often think that some of the names of modern hostas and daylilies are pretty extraordinary – Hosta ‘Outhouse Door’ and Hemerocallis ‘How Beautiful Heaven Must Be’, for example. But surely nothing beats Syringa vulgaris ‘40th Anniversary of the Communist Youth League’!

Image © Lottah Nursery, with thanks.

Parthenocissus ‘Fenway Park’ – the original plant

Parthenocissus tricuspidata ‘Fenway Park’,Boston Ivy,Red Sox,Rare Find Nursery, Image: ©Peter del Tredici. A couple of weeks ago I was telling you about ‘Fenway Park’, the lovely yellow leaved form of the Boston Ivy, Parthenocissus tricuspidata, and how it was found as a sport on a plant growing on a building near the Fenway Park stadium in Boston.

Well, regular Transatlantic Plantsman follower Ron Rabideau of Rare Find Nursery in Jackson, NJ has done us all a great favor by sending me a picture of the original plant, as first discovered on that old apartment block near the stadium. And here it is.

The picture was taken by Peter del Tredici, who first spotted the plant on the way to the ball game and made sure it was propagated. Unfortunately the plant is now gone.

Isn’t it great to see a fine new variety at the moment of discovery? Thank you Peter and thank you Rob (and Anne at Rare Find for telling me the picture even existed).

And you can check out the original post about Parthenocissus tricuspidata ‘Fenway Park’ here. In that post I mentioned Plant Delights nursery as a source - they’re now sold out.

But Parthenocissus tricuspidata ‘Fenway Park’ is available by mail order from Rare Find Nursery.