Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Why a Scented Leaf Pelargonium is not a Scented Geranium although at one point it was....confused, you are not alone

An example of a Scented Leaf Pelargonium
that is known by 3 different names although it is
the same type:
  • Concolor Lace 
  • Filbert              
  • Shottesham Pet

Referring to a plant by its correct name is a contentious issue and the plant purists really do get on their high horses about the subject of nomenclature.  Yes, they may be correct to do so but if many people know and enjoy the scented leaf pelargonium as a scented geranium how important is this naming issue?  I pose the question are we gardeners, botanists, taxonomists or even linguists?  For the majority of us we are ordinary people who love our plants in our gardens and they provide us with immense pleasure and a rewarding relaxation or hobby.  Most of us would state that we are a gardener and we wouldn’t have a clue what a botanist or a taxonomist is or does?  And just how many of us understand Latin?  It isn’t that we are not interested but there is only so many hours, days, years in a lifetime and it is impossible to acquire knowledge about everything. 

The early Pioneers who travelled around the world as far back as in the 1600's brought back thousands of previously unknown plant specimens to the UK.  Many of these are firm favourites that we have in our gardens today.  The 'Scented Geranium' was extremely popular with the Victorians and the leaves, being classified as herbs, were extensively used in recipes.

one of the earlier types of Pelargonium Species discoveries
Species are often used as one Parent to 'create' a new cultivar
John Tradescant the younger is considered to have introduced the first pelargonium species to England during the 1620’s.  Except that he referred to the plant as a geranium and the subject of nomenclature had not been thought of or introduced at this time. 

Botanical Nomenclature is the formal, scientific naming of plants
I’ll keep this as simple and as brief as is possible to make sense, especially as I am not a Botanist. 
Many hundreds of years ago Latin was primarily the most common language spoken in European countries.  As plants were being discovered and brought back to various countries individual types of plants were often known by several different names.  Linnaeus introduced the binary system of nomenclature for plant species in his work ‘Species Plantarum (1753)’.  This system gave each plant species its own unique name which remained unaltered even when other species were added to the genus.  By the 19th Century the rules for the naming of plants were extended and the key dates are as follows:
  • 1867 – Lois de Candolle
  • 1906 – International Rules of Nomenclature, ‘Vienna Rules’
  • 1952 – International Code of Nomenclature, ‘Stockholm Code’

The ICBN currently governs all formal botanical names of plant species ensuring conformity.  The International Code for Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants is a separate code within the ICBN.

To summarise: 
  • A pelargonium was known as a geranium up until Linnaeus introduced his binary system in 1753. 
  • From 1753 and up until the present day it is officially categorised as being a pelargonium.  
  • Any cultivar hybridised from the pelargonium genus is also a pelargonium.
  • A geranium is a completely different category of plant and is mainly a perennial that we leave in our gardens all year.

Plant Taxonomy
Plant taxonomy is an empirical science and is, therefore, subjective.  They look at questions such as:
  • What plants belong to this species?
  • What species belong to this genus?
The interesting point to plant taxonomy is that should the views of taxonomist ‘A’ differ from taxonomist ‘B’ they are both entitled to their viewpoint and each will be recognised.  Even if the plant is one and the same it could well end up with more than one name which will lead to considerable confusion.  If the unique nomenclature cannot be agreed upon within the ICBN system the plant may well indeed have more than one legitimate name until further scientific research can resolve this.

The pelargonium v geranium name debate will continue without a doubt!
Scientifically it has been proven that a geranium and a pelargonium are definitely different plants.  However, my opinion is that there is also a Cultural element to this name debate and I am not referring to growing plants.  It goes back through many generations within our families and our Society and I certainly remember my Granny talking lovingly about her geraniums which she always grew and cosseted.  They were pelargonium. 
If you love a particular type of plant and you are comfortable with calling it a Scented Geranium I for one am more than happy for you to do so.  After all I fully understand what plant you are talking about and the botanical or taxonomical name will never detract from the sheer pleasure that Nature provides for us.  Is nomenclature really that important to a Gardener?  Enjoy!!

Source and further reading:

Scented Leaf Pelargonium - Scented Geraniums
really are
Living Natural Fragrance for Homes and Gardens

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