UNITED STATES—Nomenclature is simply a structured technique of naming. Botanic nomenclature assigns universally precise general or genus names with specific or species names to all plants. Such botanical names are also scientific and Latin names, but not common names. They are binomial with their uncapitalized species names after their capitalized genus names.
Latin, scientific or botanical names are the same for everyone everywhere, regardless of regional language. They simplify documentation and distribution of botanical information for plants that have different regional common names. Even if all other information needs translation, botanical names do not. They are really more common than common names.
Realistically, common names are no more common than common sense. Many regional names are common only within isolated or contained regions, such as individual islands of Polynesia. Aloalo of Hawaii are simply familiar hibiscus here. Lily of the Nile seems to be the only common name for Agapanthus, but is more familiar as than in Vietnam.
Common names are more popular but perhaps less accurate than Latin names.
Acer platanoides is Latin for ‘maple which resembles a sycamore’. Acer pseudoplatanus is Latin for ‘maple which is a false sycamore’. Both are maples here, but also sycamores in England. Conversely, Platanus X acerifolia, which translates to ‘sycamore with maple foliage’ is a sycamore here, but a plane in England. Common names might be confusing.
This is why botanical names are so important. Arborists and horticulturists both here and in England recognize them regardless of possible inconsistencies with common names. Of course, common names are useful regionally. They may be easier to remember, more appealing or merely amusing. Pigsqueak and sticky monkey flower are difficult to forget.
Nonetheless, it might be helpful to be aware that some common names are inaccurate. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, unless of course, it is a Confederate rose, Lenten rose, rose of Sharon or rock rose. None of such roses are actually roses. Neither calla lily nor canna lily is a real lily. Neither dracaena palm nor sago palm is a real palm.
Highlight: Dracaena Palm
By the end of the Victorian Period, dracaena palm, Cordyline australis, had become very popular, both as small trees and as foliar plants. The largest specimens were only about 20 feet tall and half as wide. Removal of trunks that grew too tall for short foliar plants induced fresh basal growth. The drab leaves grew three feet long and three inches wide.
Cultivars with bronzed foliage became more popular after the Victorian Period, although not as common as the original. They grew slower and stayed smaller. The many modern cultivars of the past few decades stay even smaller, with even more impressively colorful foliage. Most are purply bronze or variegated with creamy white, pale yellow, pink or tan.
Modern cultivars generally mature efficiently, but then attain height too slowly to function as small trees. Some do not develop substantial trunks. They are therefore more popular for their delightful foliar color and texture. Many generate appealingly pendulous foliage. However, a few eventually develop sculptural form with exposed corky trunks and limbs. Removal of unimpressive floral panicles prior to bloom removes floral frass before it gets messy.
Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.com.