I was reading a little book the other day on flowers of the French Alps. I couldn’t read French to save myself, however with some delight I could read the botanical names. Names such as Allium, Narcissus, Aquilegia and Ajuga I could match with pictures quite easily. Chives, Daffodil, grannies bonnets and an European Alp form of our local Ajuga australis were like familiar friends rather than seemingly unpronounceable or just plain stupid names.

The main advantages of botanical names is their accuracy and their accepted world wide use long before the internet! Those interested in gardening will, by default start using botanical names simply because if one is describing a plant by a botanical name you can be sure that with a reasonable reference, your gardening companion will quite easily understand what you mean. I’ve heard of a Convolvulus sp. being referred to as a toilet creeper. The actual truth is, it just happened to grow on someone’s toilet in the days of outside loo’s, so the same stuck. Try telling that such and such plant is a bathroom climber to a botanist in Siberia whereas the name Convolvulus will light his eyes up with understanding.

The other thing that happens with botanical names is when the student of botany suddenly realises how simple it really is. Most of us would recognise a gum tree. If you take a close look at the flower (and most flowering plants are identified by there flowers and or buds and fruits) there is a certain way gum trees flowers are put together. This puts them in Myrtaceae, a fairly big family group that includes our 800 or so Eucalypts. Go any where and recognise a flower in Myrtaceae and you have half way identified the plant. Grasses are even easier. Get to know a grass flower head and yes, they do flower and you have suddenly narrowed it down to the 9000 or so species in the grass family. We only use a handful of species for food production but there is a world of grasses to explore.

The excitement of recognising seemingly familiar plants grows as more family groups become identifiable.

Take the orchid family for example. The flower is generally quite easy to recognise and with 18,000 species (this doesn’t include all the hybrids) any walk in spring through native vegetation, you will be unfortunate not to see any.

The pea family again is quite easy to know. While they are an important plant in food production, Australia is rich in ‘peas’. The family has 17,000 different species and includes all our wattles. If you doubt they are in the pea family, wait until one has finished flowering and take a look at the fruit (or seed pod).

The king of plant groups is the highly developed daisy family. The daisy would have to be the most easily recognisable flowers to the point where children when drawing a garden, daisies will feature heavily. They come in many sizes and forms, have an incredibly wide distribution over the world and contains a mind blowing 25,000 species. This is 25,000 recognisably different species that reproduce after their kind and again, Australia has our fair share of different daisies.

My point is that with a little understanding of some of the larger botanical families, understanding of gardening and the natural world around us grows. With that understanding our appreciation of it grows and in turn our gardening skills grow.

So why put up with a narrow band of ‘accepted garden plants’, when there is simply thousands upon thousands of plants to enjoy.

This article first published in the Riverland Weekly © June 10, 2010.