Snow in summer

People just getting into gardening (or even some old hands – you know who you are) often wonder what all the fuss is about botanical names. Why memorise a complicated name in a foreign language (Latin, a dead language at that) when you can use a simple name in English?

Well, here’s a good example of why those pesky botanical names are so important. Both the plants pictured below share the same common name – snow-in-summer.

The tree called snow in summer. Photo: Sandra Simpson

One is a tree that grows to about 8m, the other is a perennial groundcover that grows a few centimetres high. Going into your local garden centre and asking for snow-in-summer may cause some confusion, if not embarrassment.


The groundcover known as snow in summer. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The tree is Melaleuca linariifolia, one of the paperbark family native to Australia, while the groundcover is Cerastium tomentosum and is native to Italy.

I photographed the tree at McLaren Falls Park recently and, intrigued by its fluffy white flowers, came home and did a bit more research. The groundcover was photographed in my own garden – the original plantlet came from a (now-gone) motel in Whitianga where, I am sorry to say, I sneakily pulled a bit out of the garden (I’ve grown up now and don’t do that sort of thing any more, honest).

I’ve found that my grasp of botanical terms is aided by understanding what some of the Latin (or Greek) words mean. Kiwi writer Tony Foster is here to help with his illustrated Botany Word of the Day website (and he has an iPad book available too). The link to Tony’s great website is permanently parked in the right-hand menu under Blogroll.

The second half of the botanical name is often what tells you something about the plant and in the case of our groundcover “tomentosum” reveals that the silvery-grey leaves have lots of fine hairs or are “woolly”. (The first half of the name is the general family the plant belongs to.) A number of plants with hairy silvery-grey leaves have “tomentosum” in their name, for instance Pelargonium tomentosum (peppermint geranium), Eriogonum tomentosum (wild buckwheat) and the seaweed Codium tomentosum.

Interestingly, the poison curare comes from the South American vine, Chodrendron tomentosum, which has a silvery underside to its leaves.

Sometimes though, the botanical names just turn back in on themselves and it’s a question of memorising or writing it down – linariifolia means “with leaves like Linaria” referring to the narrow leaves which resemble those of Linaria (toadflax). Another common name for this tree is flax-leaved paperbark.

The tree really did look as though it had a mantle of snow. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Text and photos copyright Sandra Simpson and may not be reused without permission.


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