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.
Why can’t I use the common name? 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 nearly identical, especially in a 5 gallon container. 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.
Here are a few more details to help make plant names a bit more clear:
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, http://www.theplantlist.org/ to see if there have been any recent changes.
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