Field of Science

Sowing botanical ignorance - common names

From a botanical perspective, common names are generally a nuisance, but at times the misinform the amateur.  So understand this, common names don't mean a thing.  A common and very annoying purveyor of terrible made-up common names is the mail-order, you've seen their cheap ass ads in the Sunday newspaper inserts, Blech's, or something very similar to that.  They tend to sell very young plants for very cheap prices thereby providing you exactly get your money's worth, but nothing at all like what is illustrated to the point that it's only a short step away from fraud.  Their ads tend to show a pretty spectacular picture with only a common name leaving you to guess what it may actually be.  Today's paper from a great midwestern city featured a striking "flowering fern".  Now anyone who knows anything about plants knows that ferns do not flower, but lots of plants have "ferny" leaves, dissected or compound leaves thought by people who never ever look at venation to look like ferns.  So so it is with this plant.  The image is probably Incarvillea delavayi, a member of the bignon family, mostly tropical trees and lianas.  Species of this genus are herbaceous Asian alpine plants, so they are hardy, but in my experience they hate hot summers, and this brings up yet another plant-selling fraud, alpines sold as hardy, i.e., winter hardy, which they are, but very heat intolerant, so not hardy at all in that respect.  Now calling this plant "flowering fern" really sends the wrong message to the botanically naive; many people will just accept that this is indeed a fern.  Nothing in the fine print even hints at its real name.  A better common name, one that has been used for this species, is fern-leafed trumpet flower which correctly suggests a relationship to trumpet vine, Campsis radicans, one of my don't plant this plants.  Other species are sometimes called hardy gloxinias, which implies a wrong family relationship, although bignon flowers do look a lot like some gesneriads.  So someday it will happen.  Some gardener without a clue will ask the Phactor what is the fern that has big pink flowers?  Gad!  And he will answer, "Ferns don't have flowers."  And they will say, "Oh, this one does."   So to play purveyors, if you must use common names, use well accepted ones, and then put the real species name in parentheses after wards, and if you cannot do this, then get out of the business.  To gardeners everywhere, beware the "hardy" alpine scam

1 comment:

Carol Steel said...

All too true. Thanks for flagging the advertising pitfalls.