Shifting Botanical Names

Learning the scientific names of plants is challenging for horticulturists at all levels. If you have been gardening or landscaping for a while, you have doubtless memorized the Latin genus and species names of many plants and can quickly find what you are looking for in a catalog or reference book. Knowing the accepted scientific names of plants is important for correct identification and clear communication with others. Despite being named in a dead language, the scientific monikers of plant species are not static. Many common landscape plant names have changed in recent years as scientists have learned more about species and their relationships to each other, leading some species to be reclassified and renamed. Before launching into the specifics, here is a quick primer on how plants are named.

The Basics of Plant Naming
In the mid-eighteenth century, a Swedish scientist named Carl Linnaeus developed a method for naming, ranking, and classifying plants that is still in use today (with many changes). Linnaeus gave all plant species a two-word “binomial” name consisting of the genus and species. It is still the basic structure of the modern naming system. Plants that are very similar and closely related are assigned to the same genus, and each is given a unique species name. For example, spotted geranium and bigroot geranium have the same genus (Geranium) but different species names (maculatum and macrorrhizum respectively). Why are plant names in Latin? In Linnaeus’ time in the eighteenth-century, Latin was the language of science, and the tradition has continued. Latinized descriptive phrases give clues about the plant’s qualities (i.e. “alba” means white and “rubra” red).

While scientific names may seem unnecessarily complicated when you first start learning them, they do serve an important purpose. Plants generally have a common name and a scientific name. Common names are often descriptive of the plant, such as red maple, bleeding heart, or paper birch. There are problems with using common names though. The same species of plant may have two or more common names, with names varying from region to region, and some very different plants may even have the same common name. For instance, “geranium” is the common name used to refer to two different groups of plants. There are the hardy geraniums in the genus Geranium, and tender greenhouse geraniums that belong to the genus Pelargonium. When discussing landscape plants, it can be helpful to describe the species you mean by its scientific name for the sake of clarity.

Changing Plant Names
Linnaeus used physical characteristics to group plants, a practice that continued until the late twentieth century when it became possible to study plant relationships through genetics. In some cases, genetic discoveries reinforced assumptions made through the examination of plant structures, but in others, DNA analysis showed that plants once thought to be related were quite different. This has led to plants being reclassified and therefore renamed. Names are changing at an accelerated pace, as genetic information allows for new understandings of plant relationships. In many cases, plants that were formerly grouped under a single species are reclassified into distinct species, or species previously classified in a particular genus are placed in other genera. For example, most of the species once classified in the genus Aster have now been placed in other genera, including Symphyotrichum, Doellingeria, Durybia, and Ionactis.

In a perfect world, there would be one true name for every plant, but scientists are constantly debating classifications. Many plants have more than one scientific name, but just one that is accepted as the most accurate. Current accepted names are what you will find in up-to-date botanical literature and serious garden writing. It usually takes years for the horticultural industry to adopt new plant names to avoid confusing clients. Eventually however, accepted names make their way into catalogues and horticulturists must make the mental shift. Do not be surprised if you start seeing the following landscape staples labelled by different names.

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae formerly Aster novae-angliae
New England Aster

Actaea racemosa formerly Cimicifuga racemosa
Black cohosh

Actea simplex formerly Cimicifuga simplex

Chamaepericlymenum canadense formerly Cornus canadensis

Lamprocapnos spectabilis formerly Dicentra spectabilis
Bleeding heart

Eutrochium spp. formerly Eupatorium spp.
Joe Pye weed

Hylotelephium spectabile formerly Sedum spectabile

Swida sericea formerly Cornus sericea
Red-osier dogwood

Swida amomum formerly Cornus amomum
Silky dogwood

Benthamidia florida formerly Cornus florida
Flowering dogwood

Benthamidia japonica formerly Cornus kousa
Kousa dogwood

— by Emma Erler, UNH Extension Field Specialist, emma.erler at


Stick to Your Strengths

I often wonder if lawn maintenance is going the route of other home care companies. These days many people call a cleaning company for routine interior cleaning and a more specialized business for carpet or upholstery “deep cleaning.” Are lawn care companies now becoming more of a complete landscape business than they once were? It often seems so to me. Fewer people mow their own lawns and just figure it into their home maintenance budgets. If the lawn care company can mow my lawn and advertises for design work, why not hire them?

One of the largest landscaping companies in greater Portland, or probably now Maine for that matter, started as a mowing operation in Portland and now has mid-coast and Bangor offices. During peak season they employee about 200 workers. They have diversified from what was once primarily a mowing company, that sub-contracted their weed and feed program, to what is now a “Complete Landscape Company.” Maintenance of all types of lawn and shrubs, planting, design work, tree care, landscape construction, snow removal, pretty much the full spectrum. This complete service even goes as far as janitorial services, trash removal, and a security division, maybe spread too thin, in my opinion.

The company has had the huge landscape contract with one of Portland’s hospitals for several years. The hospital has one large primary location in Portland, several other satellite facilities, and numerous office complexes all around southern Maine. Mowing and snow removal seem to be their strong suits, but trailer loads of mulch are used in spring clean-ups (spread too deep) and shrubs are sheared into beach balls and hockey pucks. I must admit, the grounds all look very well groomed. Large beds of colorful annuals are planted each spring in highly visible areas.

So, what’s my point? Does a bigger company mean higher quality work? Does the fact that this landscape company is one of the largest in Maine mean they are one of the most knowledgeable? In my opinion, not at all! As I mentioned earlier, their work is very neat and well groomed, but based on excess mulch and improper pruning, that aspect is very faulty. Plants are not being properly cared for and the general public is being misled. Maybe they should stick to just the lawn care division and seek assistance with their pruning or other plant care skills. I see this all too often with lawn maintenance companies as they expand and diversify. Mowing work turns to plant clean-ups and pruning, then planting or hardscapes and possibly doing small design jobs.

Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of respect for people who grow, diversify, and try to broaden their knowledge. But it’s also very important to watch closely or learn enough to realize your weaknesses and when to seek the help of others. The management of many companies, and not just the big operations, somehow have to learn what mistakes they are making and fix them. Maybe better educating the public is a possible route to go? If all of us with landscape knowledge attempt to teach our customers just a tiny bit about the way plants should be cared for I think it’s a good start. This might make the public aware of what attention they should be seeking. Should they call an arborist, that just happens to mow lawns, with their turf questions? People in the industry have to be upfront with customers and stick to their fields of expertise.

Having operated a chainsaw many hours cutting firewood, I thought it would be easy to cut down only one tree on a job several years ago. It was only about a 6″ caliper spruce that I thought would fall right into the driveway, no problem. After cutting about 60% into the trunk I realized the tree wasn’t falling quite in the direction I had planned and if it fell the wrong way it would hit all kinds of wires and possibly even go as far as into Main street! Since I was just a few doors down from the hardware store, I ran over there, bought some beefy rope and tied it onto my truck’s bumper. By this point, I would be happier if the tree fell on my truck than onto all the utility wires and maybe the street. Fortunately, once the rope was tight between my truck and the tree, it fell in a safe place when I finished cutting it!

To make a long story short, this is a perfect example of me thinking I knew more than I did, I was playing arborist for a day, when in reality I should have hired someone with far more skill.

— by Phil Caldwell. Phil is a past president of NHLA (1989) who now lives and works in Maine.  

Pandemic Recedes – Professional Development, Indeed!

There were education and professional development opportunities NHLA needed to postpone or cancel altogether during the height of the pandemic. The pandemic did offer NHLA Certified Landscapers many opportunities to explore webinars, conferences, and courses offered by many professional associations as well as national public gardens, and many, many land grant universities.

We’d like to thank UNH Cooperative Extension for their courses throughout the winter, which included multi-session presentations that offered pesticide credits – a great feature. UNHCE also did a great job keeping NHLA members aware of their various webinar opportunities, and for the Certified NHLA landscapers, those opportunities will make it possible to continue their pathway to 2021 recertification.

Other land grant universities (Notably Ohio State) offered courses ranging from landscape design by notable professionals such as Doug Tallamy, trends in understanding the connection between wildlife habitat and healthy eco-environments, and other organizations offering classes and webinars on diversity, equity and inclusion. Each of these opportunities meant our members could learn something new or continue learning more in-depth information about topics immediately related to job performance or connections with customers.

The pandemic is not “over” and we’ll keep a keen eye on what regulations may be in place for our summer Twilight Meetings, which will be held in person, or for our planned dinner meetings, which will carry us through late autumn and through the winter. While things have lightened up as far as being outdoors, maskless, or in larger groups, we’ll keep ahead of the curve with cautions and safe gatherings – meanwhile, enjoy summer and the company of colleagues you may be reconnecting with since March 2020 brought the spring scene to a pandemic pivot.

Your patience and interest in NHLA events continuing has been so helpful and encouraging. Watch future Newsletters or blast e-mails for information about what the Education Committee is planning as well as what the NHLA Board is working on! Get in touch if you would like to be a part of the working committee for the postponed Field Day, or for any of the dinner meetings we’ll try and re-institute. Your input is valuable! Please e-mail Dave DeJohn, President, NHLA,, and he’ll make sure your ideas are shared with everyone involved in helping NHLA grow and serve as many members as possible.