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The secrets held in the botanical names of your favourite plants

Friends are forever recommending podcasts to me, which I never find time to listen to. On your walk, they say. But to press play on a podcast I would have to give up my internal conversation with the plants I pass.

Admittedly this conversation consists mostly of me naming them: Wisteria sinensis, Pennisetum rubrum, Camellia sasanqua, Loropetalum chinense, Leptospermum brachyandrum, an excellent one that. I repeat it, Leptospermum brachyandrum, just for the fun of all those syllables, all those consonants. It feels like my mouth is dancing.

Learning the proper names of plants is a short step to a much more interesting neighbourhood walk, headphones not required.

Learning the proper names of plants is a short step to a much more interesting neighbourhood walk, headphones not required.Credit:iStock

I realise this walking meditation mantra is an odd habit. But I do wish more gardeners would embrace the joy of botanical names. Binomial classification, which is the naming of plants that puts the genus in which the plant belongs as its first name, and its individual species as its second, is not just a party in your mouth, but actual information.

For a start the botanical name allows for a correct identification. If you talk of your hen and chicks and you don’t keep poultry do you mean a succulent from the Sempervivum, Echeveria or Sedum families, all of which include plants that use this same common name?

Trust me, the Greek and Latin words make it simple. Plants with the same first, or genus, name will share some characteristics, aiding your garden success. The second, specific epithet, tells you something about that individual species.

The species name may have been chosen to refer to the plant’s colour, form, growing habits, leaf shape, fruit, texture or similarity to something else entirely, or it may refer to an individual, usually a man, who either named the plant or named it after a patron or friend.

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Some of it is obvious. ‘Grandiflora’ means big flowers, as in Magnolia grandiflora. ‘Longifolia’ means long leaves, as in Acacia longifolia, the most common wattle of our coast. ‘Jasminoides’ means it looks or smells like jasmine, as in Trachelospermum jasminoides (Chinese jasmine) or the native Pandorea jasminoides. ‘Fragrantissimus’ means it smells good, as in Lonicera fragrantissima (honeysuckle) and ‘foetidus’ means it stinks, as in Iris foetidissima, which has unpleasant-smelling foliage.

So you can expect the native ginger, Alpinia caerulea, to have blue berries because ‘coeruleus’ means blue. ‘Scandens’ means climbing so you know how Hibbertia scandens is not going to form a neat mound. If you want leaves with a blue-green tinge to them look for some form of ‘glaucescens’ in the name, such as Echeveria glauca, which is a pale blue-grey-leaved succulent, or Cordyline glauca, the back of whose leaves are more of a navy blue-green, or Festuca glauca, the blue fescue which forms a mound of fine steel-blue leaves.

Hooked yet? Start by learning the proper names of the plants you grow and love, and find out what the names tell you that you didn’t already know. From there it’s but a short step to a much more interesting neighbourhood walk – headphones not required.

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