What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.
Of course, Shakespeare’s familiar line was about the complications Romeo’s last name brought to his ill-fated romance with Juliet. Plant names are a different sort of complication for gardeners.
All but the newest plant enthusiast realizes that plants have formal Latin names, genus and species, often difficult to pronounce and a bit intimidating. We prefer the common names, like daisy, snapdragon, and petunia. But the longer one gardens, and certainly the deeper one delves into the incredibly vast assortment of different plants, the more we appreciate the bigger vocabulary.
Primroses, for example. True primrose, the genus Primula, is a fairly large group of greenhouse and garden plants. Most familiar is the English primrose sold as flowering potted plants in late winter or early spring. Colorful flowers last for several weeks, and plants are usually discarded, though many are garden-hardy for us, and can be grown in a cool, shaded garden with moist, well-drained soil. These are typically hybrids, Primula x polyanthus, but may also be listed as Primula veris or Primula vulgaris.
But Primulas are so diverse that there are societies and organizations dedicated to collecting and hybridizing the plants. There are a few species that will grow in our gardens, such as Japanese primrose (P. japonica), candelabra primrose (P. beesiana, bulleyana and hybrids), drumstick primrose (P. denticulata) and orchid primose (P. viallii), and in greenhouses, fairy primrose (P. malacoides) and German primrose (P. obconica), but there are hundreds more.
Having gone this far, we think we know about primroses. But there are also plants called primrose that are not part of the genus Primula, or even in the same plant family (Primulacea). When I scroll through Wikipedia’s listing of plants in the primrose family, I find just a few familiar names, including Cyclamen and Lysimachia (gooseneck loosestrife, creeping jenny, among others)—and none these are called primroses.
Evening primroses, on the other hands, are in the genus Oenothera, in the willowherb family along with fireweed, fuchsia and gaura. Cape primrose (Streptocarpus) is gesneriad, along with African violets.
So, if you ask for a primrose, it is difficult to know exactly what you will get. And this is just one example.
Don’t let the names discourage, however.
It’s always a good idea to understand the plant behind the name. Where it will grow and thrive, whether it will be happy in your home or garden, and whether you really want it. Fundamentally, the name doesn’t really matter.
And don’t be intimidated by others who seem to know the names better than you do. I’ve been at this for 30 years, and there is always more to learn. And all science — even plant names — is not a simple unchanging truth that we can learn and know forever. Our plant classification system was developed by Carl Linnaeus in the mid-1700s, and continues to serve us well, but with advancements in understanding DNA, the complex relationships between plants and the names themselves are changing faster than ever.
The easy-to-say genus Aster has been changed Symphoritrichum (yes, really), Eurybia and a couple of others. Coleus is Solenostemon. Cimicifuga is Actea. Eupatorium (Joe Pye weed and relatives), is splitting into Eutrochium, Ageratina, Conoclinum and a dozen others. And the list grows.
Fortunately for gardeners, the growers and garden centers are slow to adopt the new names. It’s in everyone’s best interest, after all, we just want to buy some plants, and they want to sell them.
And yes, by any other name, they smell as sweet.