Chionanthus virginicus

Q: Why do I need to know the botanical names of plants?

A. What’s in a name? “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”…from Shakespeare, and it is true, but the flower might not be a rose! In your garden, you need to know the difference between plants. Is it poison ivy or Virginia creeper, which may look similar? They are both native Texas vines, but you certainly don’t want to cling on to poison ivy! Botanically they are Toxicodendron radicans and Parthenocissus quinquefolia, and each botanical name gives some clues. The ‘toxic’ part of the poison ivy name is very descriptive. And the ‘quinque’ part of the Virginia creeper refers to its five-part leaflets. Knowing the botanical name allows you to use online references such as wildflower.org of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and international sites such as World Flora online, both with good photo libraries for visual verification and other plant details such as growing conditions.

Common names are often fun; ‘Grancy Graybeard’ is a descriptive name for Texas Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus). However, in various areas across the country, different plants may have the same common names, so they are not something you can rely on. Remember, you may already know many garden plants’ botanical names due to colloquial usage over time. Once you pick up the terminology it’s fun, even if your family members cringe when the words roll off your tongue. Most of us love to see a hibiscus in the garden or smell a gardenia, and these are both easy botanical names to remember.

Suzzanne Chapman
Author: Suzzanne ChapmanEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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Suzzanne Chapman is the botanical collections curator at Mercer Botanic Gardens and promotes organic gardening, growing native plants, and protecting the environment. Send your questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..