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June 21, 2005
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DESERT BLOOM: What's in a Name?

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Mock Orange

Philadelphus Pittosporum

Philadelphus

Pittosporum

Not too long ago, I was listening to some folks talking about a shrub that they were interested in growing. They were calling this shrub 'mock orange'. Now, I know mock orange, especially since I once had a teacher who hated it. He was so emphatic that it was useless and ugly except for the three weeks a year that it produced attractive flowers. I was also thinking that this plant might suffer in our extreme, dry heat. But after listening for a while, it became clear that they meant something that is very common in landscapes around here.

Of course, this happens all the time with plants. When one nickname sticks to several different plants, you wind up not knowing what people are talking about. My personal favorite is the term 'Mother of Thousands'. You might've even had a mother of thousands, but if you did, you might have likely called it Kalanchoe, or Spider plant, or Saxafrage,. But on the other hand, you might have called one of these 'Strawberry Begonia' or 'Strawberry Geranium', even though that Saxafrage has nothing to do with strawberries, or begonias, or geraniums!

See what I mean?

One name for two different plants, or three different names for one!

It's an invitation to babble! I'm really not making a big deal out of nothing. This is actually something that can affect how our plants survive.

For instance - take that mock orange I mentioned before. In my mind's eye, I'd been picturing a plant called 'Philadelphus', a member of the hydrangea family. Well, this grows perfectly well in Massachusetts and in the northeast, but it might be awfully stressed trying to survive a Mojave July! The plant these friends were talking about was something called 'Pittosporum', from a completely different family. We see it all over the place here. It's pretty, with its dark, ovate leaves and white flowers, but back in New York or New England, it's a houseplant.

Obviously, I think that we should be using the scientific names for plants whenever we can. Who doesn't want to be understood? And who doesn't want their plants to survive? But to get the best information about establishing and maintaining plants, it really helps to know the binomial.

When you buy a plant, whether it's in a three inch pot or a 30 inch box, you need to know exactly what you're getting. Just because something is called 'palm' doesn't mean that it'll grow in your landscape. You want to know whether it's a Phoenix or a Washingtonia or a Butia. And have you heard the term 'sago palm?' There's something that's not a palm at all. All of these plants have different requirements, and in some cases, they even have different parasites, but if you only know the nickname, then it's so much harder to find the information you need to keep each of them alive.

I know that we Americans don't have anything like a love affair with Latin or with Greek, and some of the nomenclature can be a bit, if not intimidating, at least off-putting. But putting that little problem aside, think about the benefits. The botanical name gives information about the plant you're interested in, and even about other plants that might be similar. Like my favorite, garlic. The scientific name is Allium sativum. Now, that name literally means 'enough allium'. And what are the other alliums? Onions, garlic, leeks, chives, shallots. So you get the idea that they might all grow in similar conditions. And they do. But the other idea you get is that whoever created the scientific name for garlic was convinced that garlic was enough. My other favorite, though, is the name for tomato - Lycopersicon esculentum - succulent fruit.

Of course, I'm not implying that we all need to get ourselves into a latin class. I did that in high school (decades ago). You certainly can, if you want, but what I'm suggesting is simply a case of looking for the real botanical name when you get a plant, be it a tree, a vine or a shrub. Make sure that the botanical name is on the tag. If you're going to spend your money for a plant, doesn't it make sense that the least you should get is its actual name?

That's of course, in addition to doing what you'd normally do - look at the plant, make sure that the leaves are intact, that the stem is sturdy, that there aren't any little insects chowing down on the foliage. Then you can look at attractive pots or whatever. After you know what it is you're buying - and You'll be able to talk with your friends, as well as with your friendly horticulturists.

For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan, of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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