Botanical Names and Why They’re Important
Have you ever gone to Starbucks and requested a “coffee”? It can be difficult to order something so simple when there are so many options: black, with milk, with cream or sugar. You can even order the really fancy stuff: Iced Half Caff Venti Ristretto Cinnamon Dolce Soy Skinny Latte, Four Pumps. This can be similar to buying plants at your local nursery. If you don’t know the correct scientific or Latin name, you might be disappointed a few years down the road when your maturing shrub is actually a very large tree.
Many people ask why they can’t I use the common name? It’s because many plants have multiple common names, especially if grown in different regions. Let’s look at the sissoo tree, Dalbergia sissoo, which is also called Indian rosewood in our area. Since this tree grows in many places around the world, there are multiple common names: Indian rosewood, East Indian rosewood, dalbergia, Himalaya raintree, penny leaf tree, shisham and sissoo. Plants can also share common names, such as ‘bird of paradise’, which can refer to a tropical bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae), a Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii) or the red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima). This makes it extremely difficult when shopping for plants by their common name.
To make matters even more confusing, we can discuss cultivars and varieties of plant names, which are listed after the Latin name. You’d like to plant a Texas sage, but which one? There are a number of Leucophyllum frutescens, including L. frutescens var. white cloud, L. frutescens var. heavenly cloud and L. frutescens ’Compacta’ grown at your local nursery. Some of these may look very similar, especially in a 5 gallon container at the nursery. A few years in the ground and these different cultivars will show varying sizes, growth habits and flower color. If trying to match something already in the ground, it can be helpful to your nurseryman to have a limb sample and even pictures of the bloom and plant itself so they can recommend the correct plant cultivar. The last thing you want is to plant a shrub that you’re expecting to grow to three feet tall and you find that it’s six feet tall when mature.
Here are a few more details to help make plant names a bit more clear:
And, to make things more interesting, the scientific community is always changing names so if you want to make sure you have the most up-to-date plant name, go to The Plant List, to see if there have been any recent changes.
The more you know about the plant that you’re looking for, the better chance you have of getting exactly what you want. Call Sonoran Oasis Landscaping at (520) 370-5697 if we can help you figure out what the botanical name of a plant is or if we can help you with any of your planting needs.
THIS LANDSCAPING TIP is brought to you by the Arizona Landscape Contractors’ Association.