One of the many interesting – and often entertaining – aspects of the gardening world is the language. Gardening terminology may seem confusing, odd and sometimes downright silly.

Of course, botany does not hold the copyright on odd names.

For example, the Dejected Underwing (Catocala dejecta) is – believe it or not – a moth and not a sad angel as one might surmise. Another moth in the genus is the Darling Underwing (Catocala cara); presumably it has higher self-esteem. There are many underwing moths, all with very interesting names.

But I digress.

Plant identification requires a knowledge of plant structures as well as familiarity with the Latin names by which they are known. It is important to have precision in proper plant identification so that everyone uses the same – rather definite – terminology.

To the casual observer, the gardening lexicon may seem a word jumble.

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As I stroll the aisles of nurseries and garden centers, I sometimes hear rather amusing comments. My personal favorite is overhearing someone ask for lumbago (which is low back pain) instead of plumbago. Plumbago is also called leadwort, not to be confused with a liverwort (again, not to be confused with liverwurst, a type of sausage). Liverwort is not common in Nebraska; a bryophyte, it spreads by spores and grows in deeply shaded, moist areas. Back to plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), which is a great drought-tolerant groundcover in Nebraska, with blooms in late summer through early fall. The foliage turns red later in fall.

While a J.K. Rowling fan might perk up at seeing the name Hedwig’s fringeleaf (Hedwigia ciliata), it is a moss, not something belonging to Harry Potter’s owl. The moss is found in some places in Nebraska but also in moorland north and west of Britain, so it might have been in the background of a Harry Potter plotline. Like other mosses, Hedwig’s fringeleaf grows in clumps. Its appearance is bristly and somewhat silvery looking when dry. When wet, the moss is more yellow, with reddish stems. This is not something you would put in your garden.

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is found in many of our landscapes. If someone refers to your Russian sage as suffrutescent, they are not implying that the plant is suffering. A suffrutescent plant has a woody base and semi-woody stems. Suffrutescent plants should be cut back to the base in spring. Blue mist spirea (Caryopteris clandonensis), also known as bluebeard or blue spirea, as well as butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) are other suffrutescent plants in our plant hardiness zone.

Shakespeare’s Juliet might have felt “a rose is a rose.” The reality, in gardening, is that the name of a plant does in fact reflect what that plant is and does. Not simply a label, botanical terminology very precisely distinguishes one plant – or type of plant – from another. Learning the terms and names and using them properly may not be amusing, but it is important in obtaining and caring for plants appropriately.

Mari Lane Gewecke is a Master Gardener volunteer, affiliated with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus program, and a self-employed consultant.

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