Saturday, January 30, 2016

You Had Me at Diplacus

Monkey flower - Formerly Mimulus, now Diplacus

Ever since I started this blog, I've done my level best to use the botanical names for the California native plants that I write about. Sure, it's painful at times - more often than not I had to do a Web search for the name, then copy-paste the name (at times with a detour through a plain text editor to strip out formatting).

Island snapdragon - Formerly Galvezia speciosa, now Gambelia speciosa
But it all seemed worth it, and here's how the argument goes: 
  • Botanical names are precise, and allow botanists all over the world to know precisely which plant you mean. 
  • Common names are fuzzy. There are often multiple common names for the same plant, or the same common name for multiple plants. 
  • After all, if you have to learn a new plant name, might as well learn the botanical name. 

It worked fairly well for me for a while. Sure, having learned Latin in Europe, I often pronounced the vowels in the botanical Latin as I would pronounce Spanish vowels. Most Americans prefer the English pronunciation. But eventually, we were usually able to communicate. Sure, many of my friends or visitors to the garden tour really preferred the common name, which I happily provided (troubles with common names like Manzanita, but mostly this worked). 

Things started getting weird a few years ago, when I couldn't find the plant names I was looking for in the plant list database that we use for the garden tour. "Wait, I know coffeeberry is Rhamnus Californica," I would mutter. "What happened?" Sometimes, another Web search yielded the new name. Sometimes, if the name change was recent, I had to get help from the Webmaster. 

I reached a new level of confusion when I was volunteering at the CNPS nursery recently and was told that some of the plants that used to be named Mimulus are now called Diplacus. But not all of them. And it was just a little bit complicated.


California Coffeeberry - Formerly Rhamus Californica, now Frangula California
I know that for a botanist, there are compelling reasons to change the names. The name changes clarify which plants belong to the same species, and which plants belong to different species. Compelling arguments for the beauty of a clean taxonomy can be found on the Internet, and I'm sure it will all be wonderful in the end. 

However, I'm not a botanist, I'm a gardener. I care primarily what the plant wants, how it looks, and which critters find it attractive.  Sun or shade? 2 feet tall or 5 feet tall? Yellow flowers or red? Hummingbird magnet or great for butterflies? And there, the species doesn't matter that much, it's often the cultivar. You can find Manzanita that grow very tall, and others that are ground covers. Most California Coffeeberry plants have red berries, but there's a cultivar with yellow berries. 

So, going forward, I'll write a my posts using the common names, and I'll start using the common names (unless I'm talking to botanists). Let's see how it goes - I can always change my mind again.


1 comment:

Diana Studer said...

I mostly use the PlantZAfrica site, and they are good about new names, and old synonyms.
I haz an offend after we lost Acacia to Australia.
All those invasive aliens are still called Acacia
and the iconic thorn trees of Africa are
... hang on while I look it up, again.