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If It’s a Rose by Any Other Name, You Could Look It Up

By Hank Becker
February 13, 1997

Ever try to find the scientific name of your favorite plant when all you know is the common name?

A new book compiled by scientists with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the Missouri Botanical Gardens should make the search easier. Scientific and Common Names of 7,000 Vascular Plants in the United States offers the most complete list of common names for plants of all types--vegetable crops, weeds, shrubs, trees, grasses and flowers.

The book includes an index of almost 200 pages of common names of plants--11,000 names in all. The 92 “rose” entries range from Arkansas rose (Rosa arkansana) to rose-ring blanket-flower (Gaillardia pulchella) to wooly rose mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpus).

Each scientific entry is linked with at least one common name. Many species have several aliases. Viburnum alnifolium, for example, is known as American wayfaring-tree, devil’s-shoestring, dog’s-hobble, dogberry, hobblebush, moosewood, tangle-foot, White Mountains dogwood and witch’s hobble.

Unlike scientific names, no rules exist for recognizing a single accepted common name for a particular plant. Common names can vary by region and change over the years.

Gardeners often must rely on the Latin name to find the plant most appropriate for their needs. Gardening success can hinge on choosing the right plant in terms of factors such as flowering time, cold hardiness, drought tolerance or disease resistance.

The book features 70 pages of scientific names with an index for each word in the common name (like “kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate”), 14 pages of important synonyms of the scientific name and an 8-page listing of the scientific “family tree” of featured plants. The book is published by the American Phytopathological Society, St. Paul, Minn.