What's in a Name?

January 28, 2003 - 14:58

Perennials, common names and marketing.

Recently, I purchased a book, 100 Flowers and How They Got
Their Names by Diana Wells (1997, Algonquin Books). This book goes into the
history 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 than
what the botanists gave them. These "common" names were usually
associated with fragrance, medicinal uses, household uses or some other arcane
reason, all of which were easier to pronounce and remember than the botanical
name. I think everyone knows how the poinsettia got its name, but do you know
how marigold got its name? Marigolds were considered flowers of the Virgin Mary
and were used to decorate church altars and called "Mary's gold."

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

But the real problem with perennials is their names. The
purists, such as botanists, researchers and true plant enthusiasts, like to
throw around their knowledge of all the scientific names for these plants, and
expect everyone else to go along with their game. I am not an advocate of using
Latin names, having avoided taking the plant taxonomy course in graduate
school. I believe if you can't pronounce or spell the name, then you shouldn't
use 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 consider
names as well as plant quality, availability, labels, pots and displays. There
has been some discussion about the dumbing-down of America. It is true -- many
Americans want things to be simpler. How many people who shop at the big box
stores can pronounce Latin names? Yes, they want perennials to be in flower in
order to purchase them, but what do they call them? We need to make perennial
names more appealing so the average consumer will be attracted to them and know
what to ask for. I know the plant industry views this as selling out, but we
are in the business of selling plants, not teaching plant taxonomy.

Use What They Know

Many perennials already have common names and quite
interesting 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 use
red-hot poker, cupid's dart and money plant as names also? Now, some purists
will argue that there are several common names per plant and that they may be
regional, so getting agreement is difficult. Well, the power of the media can
take care of that problem. But it starts with our industry first -- with what
we commonly call the different perennials and what our media spokespeople call
them. Get the label makers to change the names, advertise the common names, get
the garden show people to call them by common names and arrange your displays
by common names. How about branding perennials using common names?

To reinforce the power of common names, consider the
following two examples. Daylilies are one of the top two best-selling
perennials, but does Martha Stewart call them Hemerocallis? St. John's-wort
became popular for its medicinal properties, but does the media call it Hypericum?

To quote Diana Wells from her book, "Botanists live in
their 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, politics
and gardening." I'm not arguing with the botanists about what they name
plants, but I am strongly suggesting we use more interesting common names to
sell them.

About The Author

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 carleton@voyager.net.

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