Botanical Latin Plant Names vs. Common Plant Names – The importance of getting plants I.D.’d correctly.

Over on Instagram today, I, @edgehillherbfarm, posted a photo of an herb plant, Saponaria officinalis, growing in my garden that is most commonly called Bouncing Bet (supposedly an archaic name for British washerwomen). However, that common name is among the plant’s many common names according to numerous sources, such as, Soaproot, Soapwort, Soapweed, Latherwort, Fuller’s Herb, Bruisewort, Crow Soap, Sweet Betty, Old Maid’s Pink, Lady-by-the-Gate, Goodbye Summer, Hedge Pink, Sheepweed, Wild Sweet William, Lady’s-washbowl, Cow Herb, Scourwort, and more! I could go on but I need to make this post today so I’ll stop with the litany of common names for Saponaria officinalis and move on to my point.

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Saponaria officialis growing in my garden today, 8-9-19, Edgehill Herb Farm, Vista, California, USA

I experimented over the weekend with pressing/drying Bouncing Bet, Saponaria officinalis, flowers, something I’d never tried pressing before and that prompted my social media post. My cat was the other prompt. I post a photo of my cat, Whiskey, everyday – she even has a hashtag #dailyshotofwhiskeykitty – and today’s IG post showed her with my herb flowers about to be pressed in a book so an explanation was in order. Tomorrow’s Instagram post is being previewed here because she also watched me test the soapy part of the plant’s names, history and uses after I finished pressing the flowers, as you will see in a moment.

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Today’s #dailyshotofwhiskeykitty Instagram caption read “Last weekend I pressed/dried “Bouncing Bet” Flowers as an experiment, under the watchful eye of Whiskey Kitty. Bouncing Bet, also known as Soapwort, ‘Saponaria officinalis’ is a perennial relative of “Sweet William” in the carnation family and sometimes called “Sweet Betty” among numerous other common names. . . . More on this tomorrow.”

Botanical Latin names are extremely important to us all, they are not just important to botanists, herbalists, horticulturalists, scientists, and doctors because it is how we all know exactly which plant we are talking about when so many plants have the same or similar common names. In medicine it’s crucial. You absolutely want the correctly identified plant that is used to treat specific ailments, illness and disease and not something commonly named the same but that has none of the same uses.

I highly recommend Bill Neal’s book, Gardener’s Latin, a Lexicon, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C., 1992 for help with understanding how botanical Latin plant names can assist the everyday gardener. As Barbara Damrosch says in her introduction to Neal’s book . . .

“How will a new plant behave in your garden? If it is compactus it will probably stay small, or if columnaris make a vertical accent. If flore-pleno it will have numerous or many-petaled flowers;  if sempervirens it is evergreen, at least in some climates. If it is admirabilis or elegantissima it might delight you to grow it. If horridus, fatuus,or phu you might be sorry.”

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One of the questions asked on today’s Bouncing Bet Instagram post was” Is this also called wild phlox?”

Someone asked me today on Instagram if Bouncing Bet is also called Wild Phlox and I didn’t know. I thought Wild Phlox was another name for Wild Radish but after doing some investigation I found out I was wrong about that. So, I decided to put the long answer here in this blog post and direct my followers wanting to know more than just the short answer of “No, I don’t think Bouncing Bet is also called Wild Phlox” here on my blog.

If you’ve read this far, well done! It’s going to get a bit more confusing, please buckle up!

Here’s my full long answer to the IG question:

Common names are so confusing! Many different species of plants have the same common name/s which is why botanical Latin names were invented in the first place and are a godsend in the realm of plant identification. That said, I don’t think Saponaria officinalis is Wild Phlox nor do I think it’s something called Dame’s Rocket, Hesperis matronalis, which is another possibility and here’s why: 

According to invasive.org  –

“Dame’s Rocket, Hesperis matronalis, of the Mustard family (Brassicaceae), might be confused with wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), fall phlox (Phlox paniculata) & non-native annual honesty (Lunaria annua).

And, according to naturalmidwestgarden.com –

“Dame’s Rocket, Hesperis matronalis, is commonly called “Wild Phlox” because of its resemblance from a distance to Garden Phlox, but its 4-petaled flowers identify it as a member of the mustard family rather than the Phlox family that has 5-petaled flowers.” 

Finally there is this from mywildflowers.com –

Wild Blue Phlox may be easily confused with:

  • Bouncing Bet – Petals of bouncing bet bend sharply backwards. Wild Blue Phlox has whorls of small, narrow leaves, while Bouncing Bet has larger ovate leaves. Bouncing Bet also occurs in hues of pink through blue, and white, while Wild Blue Phlox is normally (duh) blue or lavender.
  • Dame’s Rocket – Dame’s Rocket has four petals; phlox has five.
  • Garden Phlox – Wild Blue Phlox has smaller leaves and flatter clusters of blooms. Flowers of the Wild Blue Phlox all radiate from the end of the stem, while garden phlox has clusters growing from the axils.
  • Wild Sweet William – Wild Blue Phlox is typically a delicate blue or lavender, while the Sweet William is a brighter pink. Sweet William also had a denser flower head, blooms later in the season, and has smaller individual flowers.”

So to recap –

My plant shown, Saponaria officinalis is in the carnation/ Caryophyllaceae family, a lookalike plant, Hesperis matronalis is in the mustard/ Brassicaceae family and Phlox divaricata is in the Phlox/Polemoniaceae family and therefore, whether or not Bouncing Bet is also called Wild Phlox commonly, the only way to know what plant is which is to use botanical names.

Now onto more fun things like why the latin word for soap (sapon) is in the botanical name of Saponaria officinalis and why the word soap occurs in dozens of its common names. Well, it’s because it is soapy!

This from the friendsofthewildflowergarden.org  about Saponaria officinalis 

“The root stalk contains the soap making ingredient “saponin”, the leaves a lesser quantity. One can test this with the leaves by simply bruising them and add water, swish around and you find a bit of soapy bubbles forming. It is recorded that Friars brought the seeds to England from the Continent, as the plant was frequently grown next to monasteries. When English colonists came to North America, the seeds came with them. They also found the saponin solution effective in restoring color and sheen to old china, pewter and glass in addition to lace.”

Whiskey kitty and I tried it out! & it will be tomorrow’s #dailyshotofwhiskeykitty post! Seen here first!

 

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We, Whiskey kitty and I, couldn’t believe how wonderful the lather was from wetting and rubbing vigorously the leftover Saponaria officinalis leaves we had from pressing the flowers in a book. 

 

 

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I washed my hands all day from the one lump of moist leaves!
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My skin was fragrant and soft and clean once the plant lather was rinsed off. Fantastic!

 

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