Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, Volume 5: 126-135 (1879)

XX. — On the Nomenclature of Garden Plants.
By Dr. M. T. Masters, F.R.S.
[Read at the Scientific Committee, 19th November, 1878.]

THE nomenclature of garden plants — that is, of plants cultivated in gardens — is admitted on all hands to be in a very unsatisfactory condition. A glance into the first nursery catalogue that comes to hand will suffice to prove the truth of this assertion. It is proposed in the following remarks to consider some of the reasons for this confusion, and to bring forward certain points for discussion and consideration, in the hope that eventually some steps may be taken to remedy the inconvenience, or at least to check its further increase.

The confusion alluded to arises from various causes, some attributable to the botanist, others to the gardener. Among these causes may be mentioned the misapplication of names. A name, correct enough it may be in point of form, is given to a plant by mistake or carelessness, or he name originally correct may become perverted and distorted by misspelling, as when the pear Joséphine de Malines becomes in the vernacular "Joseph on the palings." The misuse of synonyms is another fertile source of confusion. Misstatements, accidental or wilful, add to the disorder, while the application of names, often absurd or cumbrous, by incompetent or unqualified persons, botanical or horticultural, is the most prolific cause of perplexity.

In proceeding to discuss these various sources of mischief, we may arrange them into two heads, Botanical and Horticultural. We shall touch but lightly on the botanical aspect of the question, because botanists have a code of their own, which they obey more or less loyally, and whose regulations can at least be appealed to in cases of dispute or difficulty. The horticulturists have no such code, and the important point for us to consider is whether it would be desirable they should have such a code, whether the botanical code could or could not be adapted to their requirements, and whether, suppose such a one framed, they would obey its provisions. We know unfortunately that the uniformity of practice among botanists is not so complete as might be desirable, and we think we may add of horticulturists that "where they do agree their unanimity is wonderful."

Adverting now to the share of the botanist in the disarrangement and misarrangement of names, it may be said that the evil arises for the most part from the imperfection of the materials at his disposal. On the principle of recognising Hercules from his foot, or a lion by his claw, a botanist is too often expected to recognise some miserable scrap of a specimen, smashed it may be beyond hope of certain recognition in its transit through the post, and rendered unrecognisable by the stupid practice of enveloping the "specimen" in cotton wool.

Should the temper of the botanist under these circumstances be sufficiently unruffled to enable him to give a coherent answer at all, it is, to say the least, not at all unlikely that the name he assigns to the bruised and maimed fragment is wrong-that the foot is not that of Hercules, the claw not that of a lion. Imperfect specimens then, often unavoidably imperfect, engender faulty nomenclature.

But the specimen may be a good one, while the means of comparison and identification may be defective. Even the rich herbarium at Kew, admirably arranged as it is for purposes of research, is not, cannot be complete. The means and facilities at that establishment transcend those offered by any like institution at home or abroad, and the willing help and hearty co-operation there afforded to anyone engaged in serious research demand the most cordial and grateful acknowledgment. Still it is possible to take a good specimen to the Kew herbarium, to avail oneself of all the resources of that unrivalled establishment, to profit by the kindly aid of the staff, and yet to make mistakes — mistakes of identification sometimes arising from the fault or defect of the inquirer himself, or mistakes arising from the fact that a particular species, known to science, is not represented in the herbarium, or that a particular book in which that species is described or figured is wanting from the shelves of the library. Of mistaken identifications we say but little; how they may arise is but too obvious. The only consolation is, that those. wiser and more experienced than ourselves occasionally lapse into similar errors.

Turning now to the horticulturist proper as a creator of confusion in nomenclature, it must be admitted that he is too often guilty, as Mrs. Malaprop would say, of a "great derangement of epitaphs." With little botanical knowledge he is necessarily unfamiliar with botanical usage, and so, if he ventures to act as sponsor, as he sometimes does, the result is not satisfactory.

In the case of newly-imported plants the general practice — and it is one which cannot be too much commended — is to seek the assistance of the authorities at Kew, or of those botanists who have made a special study of the order to which the new plant belongs, or is supposed to belong. In this manner not only is horticulture benefited, but botany also, as by this means a knowledge of many new forms and a better acquaintance with old ones is obtained. Moreover it is impossible to over-estimate the value of the knowledge which many of our nurserymen and their assistants have acquired from long experience, and from having constantly under their eyes particular sets of plants. What professed botanist would not envy the knowledge of plants possessed by a Veitch, a Dominy, a Bull, a Williams, to name only a few among many?

On the other hand, when care like that above alluded to is not practised, or where a knowledge of plants is defective, all sorts of errors in nomenclature creep in; tallies, once rightly affixed, get shifted and cannot be properly replaced; other tallies suffer from faulty copying. Errors of spelling creep in, and having crept in, spread with a vigour more surprising than satisfactory. In this manner perversions of Latin, or it may be of French or German, names become only too common, to the bewilderment of the amateur, the distress of the botanist, and the utter mystification of the poor gardener.

In what has just been said we have had in view nomenclature and perversions of nomenclature applied in all good faith. There may be instances where changes of nomenclature or an improper application of names are made wilfully for the sake of some supposed advantage. If such exist it is needless to advert to them here, as everyone would reprobate them, and in the end the sin would surely bring its own punishment.

Another of the many difficulties which beset the question of the Nomenclature of Garden Plants is that arising from the changes which botanists, with good or bad reason, make. Ought these changes to be followed by gardeners or nurserymen or should they ignore them? When followed partially endless confusion arises, as it is not practicable, so far as we can see, to enforce universal compliance, and so the same plant in one nursery bears one name while in another it is called something else. To take an instance few, if any, botanists now accept Weigela as a genus. By Bentham and Hooker, Karl Koch and most later authorities, Weigela, or Weigelia (for it is spelt in both ways), is merged in Diervilla. This being so, are we in gardens to say Diervilla japonica and Diervilla rosea, or Weigela japonica and Weigela rosea? Are we to call our Gloxinias by the name of Ligeria, with Decaisne, or by that of Sinningia, with Bentham? What ought to be done in such cases for strictly botanical purposes is not doubtful. There is the canon law obeyed, as we have said, more or less loyally by all botanists. The question is, whether the usage most common (we wish we could say universal) among botanists should be also adopted in gardens? The answer to that question, we think, depends upon the use to which the name is to be put. If the name is to be used as a sign or indication of a scientific fact, or as a distinctive label for scientific purposes, then botanical usage should of course be followed. But in the vast majority of gardens no such scientific aim exists. The nurseryman labels and catalogues his plants for commercial purposes only. The ordinary gardener only wants a name, as it were as a label, and it does not much signify to him what the form of the label maybe, provided it be distinct from others. Should gardeners or nurserymen attempt to follow the changes in botanical science or the fluctuations of individual opinion they might be altering their names every month in the year, and would thus give rise not only to inevitable confusion, but possibly also to imputations of a very unpleasant character.

For purely commercial purposes, then, we think that as a general rule, subject to exception, garden names once established should not suddenly be altered. To fall back on our illustration Weigela rosea should be Weigela rosea still for garden purposes. For botanical purposes it should at once be called Diervilla rosea. Gloxinias in gardens should remain Gloxinias still, while in botanical establishments they should be ranged as Sinningias. The phrases " subject to exception" and "once established" leave a loophole and may be criticised accordingly. Be it so. The naturalist, who knows the impossibility of framing a definition that shall be universally applicable, will not quarrel with these loopholes. Names and definitions, so called, in natural history must of necessity be more or less arbitrary, and their usage must be more or less elastic. And so the rule must have many exceptions, and the expression "once established" may serve as one. Weigela rosea is no longer botanically correct, or at any rate it is not so correct as Diervilla rosea, but the former appellation is now established in gardens and for garden purposes. The advantages to be derived from changing it would be outweighed by the inevitable confusion that would be begot. The very moderate success that has attended the attempt to substitute the more correct word Pelargonium for Geranium among the general run of gardeners is not an encouragement to proceed far in this direction. But suppose Weigela were a name of only quite recent application, and one not generally known in gardens, or applied to a plant not yet in trade lists, then most decidedly the more correct botanical name should be employed.

In a public botanical garden the botanical name should be the one preferred, but the garden name should be given also, as a synonym, on the tally. The gardener or the amateur would then see at a glance both the correct and the provisional name, and gradually the more correct appellation would be adopted and the less correct one would fade out of usage. But that this would be a very slow process is proved, as has just been said, by the still frequent employment of "Geranium" where Pelargonium is meant.

In the herbarium, as a matter of course, the botanical usage would be strictly followed. In the proposed "Hortus Europaeus" both names correct and conventional should be used, precedence being given to the former. The case of the gardening journals presents a difficulty as considerations of time and space would often prevent both names from being used. To employ the scientific nomenclature alone would be to use names not known to the majority of their readers. On the other hand, if the journalists confined themselves simply to garden nomenclature, they would be open to the reproach of failing in one of their most important duties — the dissemination of correct information. It would seem clear, then, that the proper course to follow, wherever space or other circumstances permit, would be to cite both names thus: Diervilla (Weigela) rosea.

Where, as often happens, a provisional or a garden name has but a short existence, or does not become established, then, of course, the sooner it is burked the better. The correct name should be adopted as soon as possible, and the temporary appellation be no more heard of in any shape or form. Unfortunately this consummation devoutly to be wished is only likely to be realised in a very small proportion of cases. For the other much more numerous instances we see no better general rule to be adopted than the one we have laid down, but we shall be glad to receive the opinions of the Committee on the subject.

It may be well to add that these remarks apply exclusively to species or reputed species. Natural varieties, seedlings, and sports or bud-variations, open up other points which we cannot consider now. But in passing we must earnestly protest against the practice of stringing a long array, jumble rather, of Latin or Greek adjectives, often irrespective of grammatical propriety, cumbersome to speak, laborious and troublesome to write. Such names should find no place in the garden, scientific or otherwise; they should not encumber the pages of any catalogue nor any journal. Unfortunately once launched, the journals are obliged to use them, but we own for our own part to a feeling of repugnance when we are obliged to write such terms as Osmanthus Aquifolium variegatus nanus, Ilex Aquifolium myrtifolia aureo-marginata, or Ilex Aguifolium parvifolia conspicua argenteo-marginata, and such like. Scientific nomenclature had become an intolerable burden when Linnaeus swept it all away and substituted the simple binomial nomenclature, the surname and baptismal name, as it were, for the descriptions which, prior to his time, served the purpose of names. Would that some Linnaeus would arise and make a clean sweep of the incongruous jumble of names given to varieties of Ivies, Hollies, Ferns, and many other plants. Far be it from us to deny the right of these varieties to distinctive appellation. For garden purposes the varieties in question are quite as important, often more so, than the species itself, or what botanists agree to consider the species. For scientific purposes these variations are also all important. If there was a time when they were held in relatively light esteem by some botanists, that period vanished when Darwin published his "Origin of Species." Darwin taught the botanists the true value and significance of these heretofore little regarded forms, and taught the naturalists (as Peter was taught not to call any man common or unclean) that the most apparently insignificant of these varieties may perchance furnish a clue to some of the deeper mysteries of Creation.

Lastly, there remains the question of the proper nomenclature for hybrid or crossed seedlings artificially raised by the gardener himself, having, so far as we know, no counterpart in Nature — unless perchance moth or bee may unwittingly have done what the hybridiser with set purpose has effected. Here again, for strictly botanical purposes, the botanist has rules to follow, and which he obeys rather less well than other parts of the canon, but it will hardly be thought desirable to introduce into mere garden catalogues the phraseology which botanists have invented, not merely to denote the nature of these productions, but at the same time to indicate their parentage. We may think this attempt to kill two birds with one stone as injudicious as the combination of nomenclature and description in the case of the Ivies and Hollies we have just now alluded to, but that is a matter for the botanists. We prefer here to treat the question chiefly from the gardeners' point of view, and from that standpoint we think it will be admitted that the adoption of strict scientific rule would in this case be objectionable.

For botanical or physiological purposes a scientific nomenclature is essential, and every botanist knows where to seek or how to frame it. For garden purposes, where no such lofty purpose is aimed at, a vernacular nomenclature for the infinite number of garden varieties seems to us to be preferable. Waterer's Holly, Williams' Croton, Veitch's Dracaena, Paul's Crataegus seem to us preferable to Ilex Aquifolium, var. Watereri, and so forth. And so, for the ever-increasing hosts of new varieties of Camellias, of Roses, of Pelargoniums, of Carnations, of florists' flowers generally, English or vernacular appellatives should be used, and such as should not be likely to cause confusion. To call a Pelargonium which is perhaps the offspring or representative of fifty or a hundred artificial crosses, by such names as carneum, roseum, longifolium is to run the risk of creating confusion between the very mongrel product of the gardener's art and the relatively purely bred species.

There is one objection to the use of vernacular names that must not be passed over — the difficulty which foreigners have in spelling and pronouncing them. In this country the greatest difficulty is experienced in spelling and pronouncing Russian, Polish, Hungarian, or even names so little separate from us geographically and linguistically as the Flemish. In how many cases nowadays, when Russian enterprise is adding so many gems to our store, are we not perplexed by

"A name which you all know by sight very well,
But which no one can speak and no one can spell."

How seldom can the possessor of such a name rank himself, out of his native country, among those of one of whom it has been said—

"Thrice happy he whose name has been well spelt."

But so long as nationalities and languages exist, so long will this difficulty remain. It has been proposed in this case also to use the Latin language exclusively, but while this would be most desirable for scientific purposes; in gardens the difficulties of pronunciation and spelling would not be overcome by the conversion of a Russian into a bastard Latin name.

It must not be thought that the adoption of a vernacular name need indicate any lower commercial value or any lower social position, if we may so say, for these products of art, or these illustrations of the infinite diversity of natural forms. Far from it. If the variations, the seedlings, the sports which Nature herself produces, be worthy of our admiration and study, so undoubtedly are also those which owe their origin to the intelligent purpose and skill of the hybridiser.

Which is the man who benefits his race the most — he who finds and describes a new form of Rose in a hedge-bank, or he who "raised" Gloire de Dijon Rose? We need not enter too closely into the motives of the two men. We know, or we will assume, that the motives were excellent in both cases, but still the fact remains that for present practical purposes the "raiser" has the pre-eminence. How proper then that in such cases the raiser's name should be attached to his production, or that the labours of such men as Anderson Henry, of Knight, of Rivers, of Standish, of Marshall Wilder, of Dominy, of Seden should be attached to such productions. How improper, on the other hand, or at least how distasteful and inappropriate, such appellations as Dusty Bob, Stump the World, Try me oh! and a variety of similar names, better suited for the music hall than for the garden.

In order that these somewhat discursive remarks may tend to some practical end, we would now venture to offer a few suggestions as to the best means of remedying the inconveniences we all of us more or less experience, and of hinting at what might be done by our Committee and by the Society. It must be remembered that these suggestions are offered with becoming diffidence, and with the view of eliciting the opinions of others, so that the matter may be fairly discussed upon its merits.

In the first place, an authoritative garden catalogue is a crying want of our times. Were a new edition of the "Hortus Kewensis" prepared, or a "Hortus Europaeus," such as has been talked about at various congresses, we should at once have as complete a list of authentically named plants as would be possible. It is foreign to our present purpose to discuss this matter now. Suffice it to say that much progress has already been made in the accumulation of material for this purpose; that the last Annual Report of the Royal Gardens, Kew, contained a catalogue of one important Natural Order; and we trust that others may in due time be forthcoming. Indeed, so much has been done in the case of several of the Orders that but little more is required beyond condensation and revision so as to secure uniformity of treatment.

In the next place, our Society might do more than it does to discourage haphazard nomenclature, and to promote a more accurate system. In the case of a newly-introduced plant no name should be officially recognised till evidence is afforded that proper care has been taken to secure correct nomenclature. In those cases where, owing to the plant not being in flower, or where from any other cause the correct name cannot be given, a provisional name must be employed, but the certificate — if the plant should be awarded one — should be provisional also, and should be replaced by a permanent award when the name of the plant is correctly ascertained. This would involve a periodical investigation of the provisional certificates, a matter which would not entail any very great labour, but of which the results, if properly carried out, would be most advantageous alike to horticulture and to botanical science.

But if, as we fear would be the case, this scheme be not practicable, the Scientific Committee, or a sub-committee of that body, might appropriately be told off to supervise the names of plants exhibited as new, or of those whose identification seemed doubtful — a duty which, with the assistance to be had at Kew would not be a very irksome one.

With reference to the nomenclature of florists' flowers, garden hybrids, the endless varieties of Crotons and Dracaenas, the interminable series of new or so-called new Peas, and other fruits and vegetables — the Floral and Fruit Committees might very appropriately exercise some control. They might do much towards insuring accuracy, regulating uncouth or absurd appellations, deleting useless synonyms, and the like — tasks all the more easily carried out with the assistance of the experimental ground at Chiswick.

We do not of course suppose that the Society could enforce any code, but its example would be very powerful, and the refusal to give permanent certificates till the nomenclature of the object exhibited had been properly settled would greatly tend to the reform of garden nomenclature.

As Botany, together with Zoology — the science of living beings must rank of right amongst the highest of human studies, so should its nomenclature be correspondingly distinctive and accurate — fit instrument for a lofty purpose. And as gardening is one of the purest and most beneficial of human pursuits, ministering to our needs, enhancing our pleasures, and revealing to those who have eyes to see no small number of the marvels of created Nature no mere passing glance into the working of her machinery so should its nomenclature be not only adapted to its utilitarian purposes, but also be made consistent with good taste, refinement and elevation of spirit.