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.

Tuesday digest

Tony Foster, who produces a botany word of the day on his great blog of the same name, has collected the his definitions and photos together in a book for iPads, find the details here.

“This useful reference presents 1260 botanical terms, their derivation from Latin or Greek, a definition of the term and 550 illustrations to convey the meaning of the term. There is a full glossary of the terms as well as study cards.”

For those of us who still prefer holding a book in our hands, or indeed reading a book (not a screen) in bed Tony promises a “hard” version, probably by early next year.

His 2012 book, Plant Heritage New Zealand, is also available as an iPad book. Find more details here.

If you haven’t already looked at Tony’s blog, click on Botany Word of the Day on the right-hand menu.

Rachel Hunter helps save rare NZ plant from extinction … was the breathless headline in the NZ Herald recently. Here’s the story, which is quite interesting from a botanical point of view but differs from the printed version in at least one aspect. The paper said “imported plants” were responsible for the plant’s decline; the online version says “imported animals”. The photo in the paper was better too, our Rach holding a baby kiwi.

This is a January story from TV3 about using a “gun” to fire kakabeak seed into areas not accessible to browsing pests.

If you happen to be in Montreal between now and September 22 get along to the city’s botanic garden and see the International Mosiaculture Festival – “botanical artists” showing 50 works.

Mosaiculture, according to the website, is a refined horticultural art that involves creating and mounting living artworks made primarily from plants with colourful foliage (generally annuals, and occasionally perennials). The pieces draw on sculpture for structure and volume, on painting for their palette, and on horticulture for its plants in a living, constantly changing environment. Mosaiculture is different from topiary, which features mostly shrubs that are pruned to create shapes.