What’s in a Name? By Roger C. Styer

Perennials, common names and marketing.

Recently, I purchased a book, 100 Flowers and How They GotTheir Names by Diana Wells (1997, Algonquin Books). This book goes into thehistory of the flower and how it was discovered, named, used and popularized.What I found interesting was how some flowers became known by names other thanwhat the botanists gave them. These “common” names were usuallyassociated with fragrance, medicinal uses, household uses or some other arcanereason, all of which were easier to pronounce and remember than the botanicalname. I think everyone knows how the poinsettia got its name, but do you knowhow marigold got its name? Marigolds were considered flowers of the Virgin Maryand were used to decorate church altars and called “Mary’s gold.”

I have been trying for the past few years to grapple withperennials. With perennials becoming more and more popular, growers are dealingwith a wide range of plants they may know nothing about. Consumers are buyingmore perennials as they get more exposure in magazines, television and thelandscape. Information on how to grow different perennials in the greenhouseand landscape is still lacking, but more emphasis is being placed on this areaby researchers, gardeners and columns such as “Perennial Solutions,”page 78. So, I am hopeful that we can supply enough correct growing informationto keep this perennial trend going longer.

But the real problem with perennials is their names. Thepurists, such as botanists, researchers and true plant enthusiasts, like tothrow around their knowledge of all the scientific names for these plants, andexpect everyone else to go along with their game. I am not an advocate of usingLatin names, having avoided taking the plant taxonomy course in graduateschool. I believe if you can’t pronounce or spell the name, then you shouldn’tuse it. That’s my take on plant taxonomy, and I don’t think I’m alone!

When marketing plants to the masses, you need to considernames as well as plant quality, availability, labels, pots and displays. Therehas been some discussion about the dumbing-down of America. It is true — manyAmericans want things to be simpler. How many people who shop at the big boxstores can pronounce Latin names? Yes, they want perennials to be in flower inorder to purchase them, but what do they call them? We need to make perennialnames more appealing so the average consumer will be attracted to them and knowwhat to ask for. I know the plant industry views this as selling out, but weare in the business of selling plants, not teaching plant taxonomy.

Use What They Know

Many perennials already have common names and quiteinteresting ones at that. I compiled a list of some of the more compelling ones(see sidebar). In the trade, we already use bleeding heart, butterfly bush,daylily and hollyhock as selling names. But wouldn’t it be more exciting to usered-hot poker, cupid’s dart and money plant as names also? Now, some puristswill argue that there are several common names per plant and that they may beregional, so getting agreement is difficult. Well, the power of the media cantake care of that problem. But it starts with our industry first — with whatwe commonly call the different perennials and what our media spokespeople callthem. Get the label makers to change the names, advertise the common names, getthe garden show people to call them by common names and arrange your displaysby common names. How about branding perennials using common names?

To reinforce the power of common names, consider thefollowing two examples. Daylilies are one of the top two best-sellingperennials, but does Martha Stewart call them Hemerocallis? St. John’s-wortbecame popular for its medicinal properties, but does the media call it Hypericum?

To quote Diana Wells from her book, “Botanists live intheir own world, however, and it’s a useful one. Who are we to argue with them?After all, we have plenty to think about, like love and war, taxes, politicsand gardening.” I’m not arguing with the botanists about what they nameplants, but I am strongly suggesting we use more interesting common names tosell them.

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Roger C. Styer

Dr. Roger C. Styer is president of Styer's Horticultural Consulting, Inc., Batavia, Ill. He may be reached by phone at (630) 208-0542 or E-mail at [email protected]

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