Common names for plants can vary from one region to another, or from one culture to another. In school we learn to use scientific names in order to reduce confusion, and to align our research to a system understood by scientists around the world. But these may have limited value in everyday conversation. Why, for instance at a family gathering, why would I tell my bird-loving cousin I had seen a Turdus migratorius in her garden when I could simply say I saw a ‘Robin’? And, just as birds are categorized for convenient discussion, so are plants.

18th century Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus set forth the rules for botanical nomenclature, which are still used for plant ID in this nursery. It involves a binomial system, Genus + species, for categorizing plants based on the structure of their flower parts. What makes this system so important to us at Berkeley Hort is that we can immediately narrow the field of possibilities to a single species or variety. I recall often being approached by nursery shoppers asking for ‘Mock Orange’, only to wonder whether they meant Philadelphus, Choisya, or Pittosporum.

Since botanical names can be formidable we might be reluctant to attempt their pronunciation, relying instead on the more familiar vernacular names. Many cultures have no need for taxonomic dogma, depending entirely on local names passed down from one generation to the next. On a global scale, it would seem that the British have had the most influence on common plant-name usage, undoubtedly due to that country’s deep history in, and enthusiasm for gardening, coupled with prolific writers in the genre. 

What one calls a plant can be a matter of controversy. Some names are cute (‘Biddy-Biddy’), some descriptive (‘Snow-in-Summer’) and some use derogatory terms for people (not here). Often-used suffixes include -bane, -berry, and a multitude of -worts. My wife found that the European succulent, Sempervivum tectorum is relatively easy to grow, and with its myriad variations and color forms, was worthy of collecting. Long ago these were planted on rooftops to reduce risk of house fires caused by lightning strikes. ‘Houseleeks’, ‘Hens & Chicks’, and ‘Live Forever’ are common names I had heard for these plants. Imagine my surprise when, thumbing through an English gardening journal I came across a reference to it as ‘Welcome-Home-Husband-Though-Never-so-Drunk’. Look further in this newsletter for some of my favorite common names.

mock oranges - illustration by Helen Krayenhoff

Common to whom?

Lesser-known common names — amuse your friends, frustrate our staff.

Common nameBotanical name
Hurt SickleCentaurea cyanus
Wonga-WongaPandorea pandorana
Bunya-BunyaAraucaria bidwillii
ChupachupaEccremocarpus scaber
Cow-ItchLagunaria patersonii
Busy LizzieImpatiens wallerana
Stinking BenjaminTrillium grandiflorum
Obedient PlantPhysostegia virginiana
May-BlobCaltha palustris
Unkempt BoyNeoporteria heterophylla
Mind-your-own-BusinessSoleirolia soleirolii
Squirting CucumberEcballium elaterium
Gingham Golf-BallEuphorbia obesa
Dents de Lion (dandelion)Taraxacum officinale
Drunkard’s DreamHatiora salicornioides
Nap-at-NoonOrnithogalum umbellatum
Hug-me-TightFicus pumila
Mother-in-law’s TongueSansevieria trifasciata
Lurk-in-the-DitchMentha pulegium
Flower-of-an-HourHibiscus trionum
Peace-in-the-HomeSoleirolia soleirolii
Kiss-me-over-the-Garden-GatePolygonum orientale
Never-Never PlantCtenanthe oppenheimiana
SnottygobblePersoonia longifolia
Dead-rat TreeAdamsonia digitata
Corpse PlantMonotropa uniflora
Bloody-ButcherTrillium recurvatum
Match-me-if-you-canAcalypha wilkesiana
Vegetable HummingbirdSesbania tripetii
Dog HobbleLeucothoe fontanesiana

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