The Problem With Common Names….

When referring to ‘problems’ with common names, I’m not referring to the ‘Top 10 Most Popular Baby Names’.

What I am talking about are the problems with using common names to identify plants.

For example, did you know that the same plant can have more then one common names?

Or that one common name can refer to multiple different plants?

Caesalpinia mexicana

To some people, the yellow flowering shrub/tree above AND the orange-flowering shrub below are sometimes referred to as “Mexican Bird-of-Paradise – the SAME common name.

Caesalpinia pulcherrima

Many plants are also referred to by more then one common name.  For example, the shrub above is referred to ‘Red Bird-of-Paradise’, ‘Poinciana’, ‘Pride of Barbados’, ‘Peacock Flower’ and ‘Mexican Bird-of-Paradise’.

So you see what the problem is.  Common names, while easy to pronounce and remember, aren’t always accurate in referring to a specific plant, which can lead to mistakes and you ending up with the wrong plant in your garden.

So what do you do?

Make note of the botanic (scientific) name of the plant.  This name is unique to each kind of plant.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a popular option for many because botanic names are either in Greek or Latin and can be difficult to pronounce, not to mention memorize.

But the good news is, is that it doesn’t have to be difficult.  In fact, you don’t even have to be able to pronounce or memorize the botanic names.  Simply write it down and use it when plant shopping.  Most plant labels list the botanic name.  *(When using botanic names, it’s helpful to know that the genus is the first word and is always capitalized while the second word is the species and is NOT capitalized).

To find the botanic name of the plant you want, knowing at least one of the common names can be helpful.  Simply do an online image search using the common name of the plant you are looking for.  Then once you see a photo of the plant, put your cursor over each image, until you see the scientific name listed and then click on that link and write down the name.


Mexican Bird-of-Paradise (Caesalpinia mexicana)

‘Mexican Bird-of-Paradise is one of the common names of this shrub and Caesalpinia mexicana is the botanic name (which are often italicized).

So, please don’t be intimidated by botanic names.

Remember, you don’t have to be able to pronounce botanic names in order to be able to use them and they are much more reliable then common plant names.

  1. Ellie says

    Thanks for posting this! I have been confused by common-name references more than once. And if anyone is interested, I found this “botanary” (pronunciation guide) at Dave’s Garden:

    For example, I just heard someone talking about clematis, but using a pronunciation I’d never heard before (it took me a minute to figure out what she was saying, actually!). Turns out, we were both right!
    Meaning: Ancient Greek for vine; climbing
    Pronunciation: KLEM-uh-tiss
    Alternative Pronunciation: klem-AT-iss

  2. anonymous says

    thank you so much for posting this, out biology teacher took this article along with another one and made it into a worksheet that no body understands 😀

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