In Gardening news recently, I came across the results of a survey and subsequent stories that were hardly flattering to young gardeners. The survey found most can't recognize Latin names for flowers, while almost nine in ten are unable to identify a hoe, and nearly half do not know what a perennial is.
But is this a problem? By gardeners, did they mean those who garden somewhat seriously, or did they mean casual gardeners who might only buy a few plants to stick in the ground each spring? I suspect the latter. The fact that a huge number are unable to spot a hoe tells me only that they’ve never used one. I mean, a hoe is hardly something you’d forget if you’d spent any time at all on the end of one. I have, but as I now mulch wherever possible, I find I rarely use a hoe. Again, I’m sure most regular gardeners, young or old, know what a perennial is, but anyone new to the hobby could be forgiven.
As for the Latin, I’m surprised anyone can recognize the botanical name for plants. I have enough trouble myself, even though many assume I know the Latin name of every plant in my garden. Have I got news for you!
Just last week, when I opened my garden for visitors, there were the inevitable questions about the identity of plants, and in many cases I’d either forgotten or never knew. To avoid embarrassment I might occasionally have mumbled a phony Latin word like anonamenthenum, or casually said I’m not sure, but I believe Shakespeare called it hedgehog bane. Fortunately, no one has ever asked which play.
Common names are certainly useful, but can be confusing and inaccurate. For instance, I once made the mistake of saying my Aunt Violet called a particular plant bachelor buttons. The curious visitor told me that it didn’t look anything like the bachelor buttons she was familiar with, and next thing you know we were arguing about half the plants in my garden.
But seriously, when studying or writing about plants, the correct botanical name is essential. Latin is a universal language with strict rules of grammar and has remained virtually unchanged since Roman times, which makes it very useful for keeping order in the plant world — genus and species, followed by non-Latin variety — one plant, one name, and no confusion.
And yet I’m sure we gardeners don’t spend a lot of time thinking in Latin when in our own gardens. In fact, we’re probably not thinking in words much at all. When I’m deciding where and how to place a plant, I’m visualizing; when it blooms for me I feel — I feel pleasure, satisfaction, and sometimes astonishment. That’s why I garden.
In my own back yard, I’m always trying new things, and as most planting takes place in spring, I’m always in a rush — empty pot goes one way, trowel another, and if I’m lucky, the tag ends up beside the plant. Eventually, I get around to retrieving the tags and recording what’s where, and I do note the correct botanical name, but as for memorizing every single one, I’ll happily confess that it’s a challenge. It doesn’t help that gardening is so seasonal. When it’s under a foot of snow, I lose the familiarity and by spring many names have faded a little. So take heart fellow gardeners, botanical names are important, but what’s more important is that you enjoy your garden.
Carpe rutrum (seize the spade).