Common Names: Making Gardening Accessible?

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I was simply one of a number of speakers at an excellent landscape symposium on Long Island, and was asked to sit with them and field questions from the audience. I always cringe at such “opportunities” so I try to mind my own business and stay out of trouble. I usually don’t have a good answer to problems of deer or shade trees anyway.

Most of the questions were straightforward enough, and the session was almost completed when a fellow asked, “What do you think about the increasing use of common names in our industry?”

One the speakers, a rhododendron guru, stated that he used botanical names exclusively in his retail and wholesale nursery, and the other experts essentially said the same. Common names were confusing, they didn’t match up in different parts of the country, and as gardeners and landscapers became more competent, they shouldn’t have too much problem speaking or asking for plants botanically.

As the moderator was about to move on, I couldn’t help myself. I said (nicely), “Wait a minute, you guys are crazy! We have fewer customers than ever; the baby boomers can’t be expected to keep funding this industry, but most importantly, we have to make gardening and landscaping simpler.

“We as professionals should know the botanical names of everything we grow and sell, that is why we call ourselves professionals. Knowing the botanical name keeps us from ordering the wrong plant, and we all speak the same language. However, why do we want to force feed them to our customers?

“As professionals, we should know, use and promote the common names to simplify and make the buying experience more user-friendly. To think that my daughter Heather is ever going to learn chaenomeles instead of quince, baptisia rather than indigo, and to think she will ever get her tongue around calibrachoa is ludicrous; she hasn’t the time or the interest. We should know those names, but yes, we should be using common names. Absolutely. Not as a substitute but as a way of making Heather feel more comfortable.”

The place buzzed a little, and then the same fellow, obviously somewhat upset with my inappropriate answer, bellowed, “So you want to dumb us down even more?”

I had tried to be unemotional, but the gauntlet was thrown. “Come on now, this is not dumbing down horticulture, it is lifting it up. It makes us more accessible to people like Heather and her generation, making her experience in the retail store that much more comfortable.

“Baby boomers are looking to simplify, a couple of shrubs is now more in keeping with their lifestyle than a dozen perennials. They will be buying less, and we need to attract the Heathers of the world. We won’t do it by being holier-than-thou. Fortunately, landscapers today are buying more and more plants but we should not expect them to know all the names; it would be nice, but it’s not going to happen.”

Essentially that was the gist of the friendly repartee on Long Island. It turns out, he worked at a public Arboretum and saw things in a little different light than do producers and distributors. Most of the time, I am arguing his side, but for us, not for the public. We, the greenhouse and landscape industries, need to learn botanical names, because we get into trouble and sow confusion by relying on common names among each other. But that is for another day.

I believe we have many parallels with the computer industry. Everybody wants a computer that performs well, but if the people at Computer Doodle expected the people who walked into the store to know the difference between ROM and RAM, what a cache was and how to change the resolution on their screen, well, they’d never make a sale. Instead they talk about speed, reliability and memory, words everyone is familiar with. The computer professionals know their buzz words, but the computer industry long ago realized that if they were to attract new customers, they had to make the buying experience more friendly. So should we.

For now, when Heather comes to talk to you about some plants for her garden, tell her about your beautiful baskets of trailing petunias and how beautiful are the fan flowers. She will come back again and again.

Allan Armitage (allan@greenhouse grower.com) is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

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