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Most of us are not fluent in Latin so distinguishing between an Aesculus parviflora and an Aesculus pavia may take some extra effort. Throw hybrids and cultivars into the mix and our plant choices may increase with our confusion.
Categorizing plants is both scientifically and commercially important. Swedish naturalist Carl Von Linne (who latinized his own name and is more commonly recognized as Carl Linnaeus) developed a system of botanical nomenclature 250 years ago in order to keep the many plant species straight. This was indeed necessary because there are over 25,000 species of flowering plants known today.
Linnaeus’ binomial, or two-named, system was based in the Latin language because when he developed it in 1753 Latin was the language of academia. His binomial naming system classified a plant’s species, which consists of the generic (or genus) name and the specific epithet. So, Aesculus is the generic name, parviflora is the specific epithet that describes it qualities and....voila, the two combined represent the scientific name for bottlebrush buckeye.
Botanists take note of what makes a plant biologically the same or different and they use the binomial system to name plants in related categories. And, most gardeners recognize plants today by their naturally occurring species name; but when hybrids and cultivars enter the picture it gets a little more crowded.
Hybrids and cultivars are typically introduced after some sort of human intervention has taken place. A hybrid is a plant that results from a cross between two related species and is commonly marked by x, suggesting the cross. (The popular viburnum x burkwoodii is a cross between v. carlesii and v. utile.) Many crosses occur naturally, but often it is the gardener who recognizes qualities in related species that would, if crossed, create a better plant. Plus, those naturally occurring crosses often don’t maintain the new traits and revert back to the species. It is cultivation by humans that helps in maintaining consistency.
Cultivars (literally a cultivated-variety) can be hybridized or selected from nature. A cultivar name is noted by the use of single quotes, like Aesculus parviflora ‘Rogers’, so named because the seeds were collected from the garden of a man named Dr. Rogers and noted because it grows larger than the straight species. This plant was selected for its robust habit and then cultivated by human hands to keep this unique, but naturally occurring specimen viable. The person who noticed and selected the plant is what proves most fascinating to me whether you understand the nomenclature or not.
Plant selection may be the most fascinating technique for identifying exceptional plant material. Not everyone can do this because much of it has to do with luck and having a keen eye. It comes from an individual’s ability to notice something special about a plant that makes it different from other known cultivars. This is big business today, too, so the more informed we are the better off our selections and gardens grow! Stay informed for the new year and you will be met with more success than usual.