You’re not alone if you struggle with the names of plants.
These plants, (photographs below), are often to be found in gardens in Caversham and elsewhere. They will thrive in unattended lawns. (Whether unattended deliberately or otherwise!)
I’m quite happy with them doing well enough in a lawn that’s been left to go, ahem, a little wild – with the benefits that that brings. The colour provides a visual lift in its contrast to the greens. But while these plants don’t have any rarity value, that’s not what set me thinking.
What I found myself thinking about is the naming. I’m not a natural on this front. But I’m told the first plant is called ‘Fox and Cubs’ (Pilosella aurantiaca) because that’s what it, supposedly, invokes – a fox with her cubs in a field. Don’t ask me – I’m just reporting what others say! Alternatively, some, it seems, know it as ‘Devil’s Paintbrush’.
Meanwhile, the second one I’ve pictured is, I’ve learned, called ‘Eggs and Bacon’ (Lotus corniculatus) because of the yellow and orange colours of its flowers. But it’s also called ‘Bird’s-foot Trefoil’. And it’s known as ‘Granny’s Toenails’ too. I kid you not.
What I found myself wondering is whether the naming conventions for plants are in fact all a bit off-putting.
For starters, Latin isn’t a language that trips off the tongues of many, but the ‘proper’ names of plants are always in Latin. That’s one potential or actual barrier to understanding.
While the ‘common’ names are, at least, generally a bit more pronounceable, the fact that there often (always?) seem to be alternative common names … well, that makes them not that common! Discussing the merits of ‘Eggs and Bacon’ versus ‘Granny’s Toenails’ could waste an awful lot of time and energy if those doing the discussing don’t know they’re one and the same plant. Surely, if a key role of language is communication, then the clarity of that communication is a crucial factor.
Perhaps in the big scheme of things none of this is a big deal. Maybe this is a good example of one of the benefits of our Internet Age. It’s never been as easy as it is now to research the name(s) of something, at very, very little cost.
With that in mind, the next time I’m looking for information about a plant I only know the common name of, then I will try to be pleased that I’ll be able to find an answer – however many alternatives there are, and whatever the Latin name is!
As a later footnote to the above:
The common names of plants can often come with a lot of history, can vary from region to region, and give clues to uses and, indeed, myths about their properties. So, this is another aspect that’s a positive to bear in mind.
Regarding the Latin names, I recently learned the first part of a plant’s name (with the capital first letter) is its ‘genus’, and is normally a noun. A genus, if you like, is a rank – an indication of where the plant is in relation the family of related plants it is a part of. Every genus belongs to a larger plant family, and a family is made up of plants with some common traits.
Meanwhile, the bit that follows the genus is generally an adjective that sheds some light on the plant’s colour, size or behaviour.
And if you can keep that in mind, and succeed in your battle with pronouncing the Latin, that can help as you wonder around a garden centre! If stuck, and if you’ve a smart phone in your hand, you can always look a plant up as you browse.