Introducing plant names

I should really start off by saying something about plant names, as this is a real bugbear amongst gardeners. I thing just about everyone who has worked professionally in horticulture has been asked, generally in a tone of exasperation, why do we insist on using these weird names in a language of a people how died out centuries ago. This usually is answered by some mumblings about it avoiding different countries arguing about which language to use. This is actually more the reason the system is retained, along with the impracticality of changing it now! The real answer is far more complex, goes back at least to the conversion of Rome to Christianity and wends its way via the middle ages roman catholic church, Charlemagne and the use of Latin to control access to knowledge. That story is too long to delve into but by the time Carl Linnaeus set about creating his system of naming if he was to be taken seriously as a man of learning, and he certainly did, then he had no choice but to use Latin.

Carl Linnaeus is the man credited, some might even use the word blamed, with the naming system we use. In fact what may seem the two most obvious aspects, the use of Latin and using two words to name the plant, weren’t unique to his system having both been used in other attempts to place nature in a sense of order. His big idea was that the name didn’t physically describe the plant, it was just a label. The name John Smith only tells you that person is called John Smith and he has close relatives who last have the surname Smith. It does not tell you if he has dark or fair hair, or if he is tall or short. Try to give some one a name which describes them would be unworkable and so it proved with plant names. Therefore Garrya elliptica in itself tells you that the plant is related to other plants called Garrya and that is about it.

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