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Across the Garden Gate

Updated: Feb 13

Setting the Record Straight

A lot of people I know ask me this same question: "How are your African violets doing?" It's just about the only question I ever get about my violets because no one I know has an interest in what I do, and every last one manages to stay as far away from the greenhouse as is humanly possible. I venture to say, and I think I would be correct, that most people I know think I grow African violets, not Viola odorata. I've certainly done nothing to promote or encourage the notion, so they didn't get it from me. I think it all boils down to one word: violets.

Just the other day, someone mentioned that I grow "wild herbs." I told him that I grow Viola odorata, or violets. He then asked, "Do you mean house violets?" I think he was referring to African violets, so there it was again. The answer is still no. At Christmas, an acquaintance politely asked about my African violets, and I told her straight away that I didn't grow African violets and that African violets were not violets at all. They are botanically known as Saintpaulia ionantha, not Viola anything, and are not related to violets other than the fact that they are both upstanding citizens of the Plant Kingdom. Now this is about the point where most people's eyes glaze over and their lips begin to curl, but this person remained perfectly intact, and I took that as a sign to continue. Maybe it was all that Cherry Bounce, but I felt emboldened, so I took to my soapbox, yet again. This brave and patient soul listened and seemed to understand, even asking questions along the way. It was encouraging and gratifying, so I decided to give it another go and try to educate others about why knowing the botanical names of plants is so important.

It may seem uppity to some, but I have always identified the plants I grow in my garden and nursery by their botanical names. I use the botanical names to differentiate between the common names for plants, which can refer to more than one plant, and the botanical name that is specific and cannot refer to anything but itself. When we don't know the botanical names of plants, it is confusing and presents a conundrum. For example, Oenothera is commonly called "evening primrose," although it is not a primrose, or Primula, at all and doesn't resemble any primrose I've ever seen. So when a friend sent me a pack of what she said were primrose seeds because that's what the pack of seeds said they were and because she knew I liked primroses, what I actually received were Oenothera seeds. I tried to explain the difference to her, but it didn't sink in. I think that more often it's not that it doesn't sink in, it's that they don't find it important to know, and the information isn't wanted. Or, more likely, they think that maybe I am just spouting off and don't know what I'm talking about. Many plants, and also people it seems, have to put up with this indifference, injustice, and mistaken identity.

Lots of people here in the South like to show you their beautiful yellow "Carolina Jasmine" growing on their trellises. When I call it "Jessamine," which is actually what they are growing, they just look at me with a "bless your little heart" in their sad eyes. Jasmine and Jessamine are two distinct plants and belong to two distinct families. Jasmine belongs to the Jasminum family. "Jessamine," which is the correct common name, belongs to the Gelsimium family. It is a curious thing to not be believed when you know what you are saying is correct, but I think it's important to stay the course, so I do.

Many people often refer to some plants as "Cut and Come Again." How can so many plants have the same common name? I've seen that common name given to all types of flowers and even vegetables. It isn't a good name for one plant, let alone for so many. Don't get me wrong: I love the common names of plants, and I use them, but I also know the correct botanical names whenever I want to be specific, which is most of the time.

It's becoming more important than ever to know the botanical names of plants since so many of them are being given ridiculous common names or cultivar names. Our native Penstemon smallii, which is lovely to look at and even lovelier to say, is now sometimes referred to as "Violet Dusk," which I am guessing is a cultivar name, although I can see no improvement whatsoever over our already perfect native Penstemon smallii. Why someone wants to (or thinks he can) "improve" a native plant is a mystery to me, but that's a rant for another day. When I recently Googled "Violet Dusk," all sorts of things came up: a female rock group, a nail polish gel, a Benjamin Moore paint color, some sort of fabric, and a new Baptisia cultivar. So what exactly are we talking about here when we refer to "Violet Dusk"? These names are not only unattractive to their very core, but they refer to nothing in particular and, in this case, to many disparate things.  Not only is it incorrect, but it is also not very original.

Another plant that is even more gratifying to say is "Verbena bonariensis." Just say it aloud and listen to yourself. Then, say it again. I noticed a few years ago that it now has common names like "lollipop plant" and "Verbena on a stick." Pit one against the other, and the botanical name will always not only sound more beautiful but will always be correct (until botanists change it, of course). Frankly, I wouldn't dream of referring to Verbena bonariensis as "lollipop plant" and cringe at the very idea.

Is it that these common names are easier to pronounce? Of course, they are, but they are not that difficult, and a monkey could probably do it if given half the chance. Do they make plants easier to sell? I don't know. Perhaps, but does money have to be the bottom line for everything, and should it trump good sense and correctness? Do these common names sound friendlier, even "folksy"? Yes, they do, but they are false friends that tell you nothing because they have nothing to say.

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