At least one gardener has been motivated by my recent recommendation to learn the botanical names of plants in your garden. Wendy in Monterey wrote, “We’d like to turn over a new leaf and start learning the names of our plants. Can you recommend a book that would help us—with color photos, scientific and common names, and maybe a paragraph about the plant. We live in Monterey CA and have a variety of shrubs, trees, grasses, perennials, annuals, and rocks! Many thanks.”
My immediate recommendation is to get the 9th edition of Sunset’s indispensable reference, The Western Garden Book. This very recent publication includes hundreds of additional plants and illustrates plants with photographs instead of line drawings.
Finding a good information source is just the first step toward progress. Here are three ideas to make learning plant names more enjoyable.
1. Understand how plant names relate to other plant names
Plant names include two basic parts: genus and species. For example, Ceanothus griseus is the name for the Carmel Ceanothus, a native of the Monterey Bay area and one of dozens of species within the genus Ceanothus.
A given species might include varieties. In this case, we have Ceanothus griseus, var. horizontalis, with the common name Carmel Creeper.
A species or a variety within a species might include cultivated varieties, called “cultivars.” These are natural variations that have been selected for propagation because of their desirable features. The Carmel Creeper’s cultivars include ‘Yankee Point’ (narrower leaves and darker blue flowers) and ‘Diamond Heights’ (yellow and green variegated leaves, pale blue flowers).
Every genus also exists within a family. The genus Ceanothus is one of more than 50 genera within the Buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae). A family relative of the Ceanothus is the Rhamnus californica, the California Buckthorn or Coffeeberry.
2. Accept the reality that plant names change.
Taxonomists change plant names on the basis of DNA analyses and other methods. They either combine or separate genera (or other categories). Our current example, Ceanothus griseus has been changed recently to Ceanothus thyrsiflorus var. griseus.
Changes reflect refinements, so don’t fret!
3. Appreciate the meaning of plant names.
Many plant names describe a plant’s appearance. The genus name Ceanothus comes from the Greek “keanothus,” that referred to some spiny plant, and the species griseus is the Latin word for “gray.”
Some plant names refer to the plant’s discoverer. For the plant Salvia karwinskii (Karwinski’s Sage), the genus name comes from the Latin salveo, “I am well,” and the species name refers to the 19th century German explorer Wilhelm Friedrich Karwinsky von Karwin.
There are several books on the derivation of plant names. An online source is Michael Charters’ website, “California Plant Names: Latin and Greek Meanings and Derivations (www.calflora.net).
I have just received my copy of Sunset’s 9th Edition of The Western Garden Book, and it doesn’t disappoint.
I have several previous editions of this very useful publication, so I could attempt a detailed historical analysis of its content, but I won’t because I prefer to address the here and now.
The section on Climate Zones has been expanded to include information for several western states. That broadens the market for the book, but I’m still most interested in the climate zone of my own garden and care little about what’s happening in New Mexico.
Every gardener should know the climate zone of his or her garden, the micro-climates within the garden and the composition of the soil.
The next section, called the Plant Finder, has lists of plants in three categories: Problem-solving Plants, Earth-friendly Plants, and Plants for Special Effects. These sections are valuable guides to the alphabetical list of plants (the book’s main section). Unless you already know the name of a plant, an alphabetical list can be frustrating. The Plant Finder helps the gardener find a plant for a given situation.
The last major section, Gardening, Start to Finish, provides brief landscaping and cultivation information. This is helpful, but a serious gardener will need more detailed information on these topics.
Finally, the book restores the index of common and botanical names. This index was missing from the previous edition, in favor of a novel approach to including common names within the main alphabetical section.
The new Western Garden Book is available through most bookstores, garden centers and Amazon.com (which has the best prices, as usual). I paid for my copy, so this brief review is unbiased, except by my previous reliance on this essential reference work.
Every serious California gardener’s library should include a well-read The Western Garden Book!
Tom Karwin is a Santa Cruz resident; a UC Master Gardener; a member of several garden groups; and board member of the UCSC Arboretum Associates.