From the GardenRant archives, this post was originally published in December of 2008.
I wrote this a number of years ago after I discovered gardeners, even students, were intimidated when trying to give scientific names. They said they felt silly especially if they were with other gardeners whom they were sure “knew everything” and might correct their pronunciation. Now that everyone wants to use plant Latin and plant Greek, here is the next barrier to overcome.
Most people like to pronounce names with some degree of confidence. Scientific names can be intimidating and often we will not say them for fear of sounding ignorant. Like anything else, pronunciation is something that one feels confident with only with continued use. If scientific names are seldom part of one’s gardening vocabulary, we will always stumble and stutter. I have provided pronunciation guides for most genera and specific epithets in my books, as “correct” as I thought possible, but with a definite Armitage bias as well. And I often get skewered by linguists and editors.
However, let’s get real. Does a person in Germany pronounce a genus like a person in Ireland, or Holland? Of course not. Does it really matter if paniculata is pronounced (pa-nik-ew-lah’ ta) or (pa-nik-ew-lay’ ta)? I prefer to pronounce Stokesia as (stokes’ ee-a), in recognition of Dr. John Stokes, for whom the genus was named. However (stow-keys’ ee-a) is commonly used and equally understood. I read comments in Internet articles and can even hear proper botanical etiquette through my speakers that someone has posted. They are all very well done, and most differ with each other.
In teaching my students and talking with growers, landscapers and gardeners, I had to come up with an easy rule. So, here is the Armitage Method for Plant Pronunciation. “Get the syllables in the right order, then fire away.”
Don’t worry about sounding silly, it is only the garden snob who continually tries to correct you. And who needs snobs in a garden?
I have a question for Rant readers. How do you pronounce clematis? I have been corrected on this a number of times, and I’d love to know how others say it.—Elizabeth
Excerpted from Herbaceous Perennials Plants 3rd ed: