Saturday, August 26, 2023


Most professions and hobbies require the use of technical terms or jargon that the average person may not understand. Gardening isn't any different.  In addition, gardening terms are compounded by knowledge of botanical Latin used in plant names.

Scott Aker, horticulturist at the Cheyenne Botanic Garden and former garden communicator with the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., confessed to misspelling spiracea (omitting the first a) on garden maps and emails for five years before discovering his error.  Over the course of years Aker encountered a number of cases where horticultural and gardening terms tend to be misused or misunderstood.  Based on his experience, here are some of the topics that seem to cause the most confusion.

One of the most common errors is confusion of the terms "variety" and "cultivar". which should not be used interchangeably.  A cultivar--the word is a contraction of the words "cultivated" and "variety"--designates plants that differ from naturally occurring plant populations in some way.  To qualify as a cultivar, human hands must have created or selected that plant.

Creeping Charlie weed
Cultivars are always designated either by using the word cultivar or by placing the cultivar name in single quotes, like 'Peace' rose.  You can't help but wonder if using Latin binomial names is more trouble than it's worth.  Aker urges us to persevere.  

Creeping Charlie houseplant
Common names are a cultural construct and have regional roots.  For instance, creeping Charlie is a common name for several different plants, and it may either be a weed or a houseplant.  The weed is  Glechoma hederacea and the houseplant is Pilea nummularifolia.  Latin binomial names are necessary if we want to be sure we are talking about the same plant.

There also seems to be a movement toward capitalization of all words in common names, likely because they stand out more in marketing materials.  In general usage the only part of a common name that should be capitalized is a person or place name, like "black-eyed Susans- or "Boston ivy".

Plural forms are sometimes confusing.  If you are using Latin names, the plural is always the same form as the singular. Example, I planted a single Rhododendron in my garden.  Tomorrow I will plant five more Rhododendron.  The plural in English usage is boxwood, not boxwoods, in the same way that a single doe is a deer and 20 like her are collectively also called deer.

 To add more confusion, in some cases more than one spelling is correct:  gladioluses and gladioli are both allowed, but gladiola is not the correct term for a single gladiolus.

If you really want to plan ahead for a deep winter study you should plan for a study of the difference between bulbs, tubers, and rhizomes.  If you want to talk or write about many of these different types of plant at once, the correct collective term for them is geophyte, with "geo" denoting earth and "phyte" meaning plant; think of them as plants that retreat into the earth when times are hard.

Amaryllis bulb
Iris Rhizome
Dahlia tubers

One of the pet peeves of Aker is seeing the word horticulturist rendered as horticulturalist.  The former is the preferred dictionary choice and is shorter and simpler.  However you do see the latter version quite often, perhaps people think that extra syllable makes it sound more impressive.  

There also seems to be confusion between a landscaper and a gardener.  If you hire someone to tend to our acreage, that person is often called a landscaper, but if you tend to it yourself you probably call yourself a gardener.   A landscaper is someone who focuses on tidiness-cutting the grass, mulching the beds, blowing debris off the paths and trimming the shrubs.  A gardener is more closely associated with more intimate tasks such as amending the soil, planting, weeding, deadheading and pruning.  It connects us with the natural processes, so be proud and boldly state that you are a gardener.

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