Snottygobbles, or the case for gardeners’ Latin

You might need BBC blood in your veins to remember the childen’s show Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men (and I don’t mean the more slick, recent reprise). Bill and Ben were identical flowerpot people, not too unlike the fellow in our picture today, and every episode would end with the question: Was it Bill or was it Ben?

Plant nomenclature can be like that. When it comes to common names for plants, it can be easy to confuse Bill with Ben.

Take the star of today’s post: Snottygobbles. I, um, skidded across this name while wearing my freelance hat. The subject was an object fashioned from kou wood, and I needed to know more to write about it. In such cases, Google is my friend, and lead me to the kou tree (Cordia subcordata) on Wikipedia. One of its alternative common names was listed there as snottygobbles.


Apparently, this all-too-descriptive epithet (related to the mushy fruit) is also applied to the parasitic twiner Cassytha filiforma and to the shrub Persoonia saccata. Leave it to Australians, they of fair dinkums and billabongs (billandbenabongs?), to come up with such a corker. So I ask you: is snottygobbles Bill or is it Ben?

What does this have to do with Toronto gardens?

If you want to be certain you’re getting the real thing for your garden, Latin is a must. Need to see a more mundane example? Gillyflower: a lovely, romantic name. But for which flower? Encyclopedia Britannica Online has this to say about that:

[it’s] any of several scented flowering plants, especially the carnation, or clove pink (Dianthus caryophyllus), stock (Matthiola incana), and wallflower (Cheiranthus cheiri). However, the gillyflower of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare was the carnation. Other plants that are types of gillyflower are dame’s gillyflower, also known as dame’s violet (Hesperis matronalis); mock gillyflower, also known as soapwort or bouncing bet (Saponaria officinalis); feathered gillyflower, also known as the grass or garden pink (Dianthus plumarius); and sea gillyflower, also known as the thrift or sea pink (Armeria maritima).

One name. Six (or seven, depending how you add them up) possible secret identities. Is it Bill or is it Ben?

So, gardeners, when you need to be really, really sure what you’re getting, speak Latin.

And, even more important: when weeding, semper ubi sub ubi*!

(*Translation: Always. Where. Under. Where.)


  1. True, Allan. My French is sometimes shockingly lacking (especially so, as I live in a bilingual household), but I have had long conversations in French about gardening. When we didn't know our peonies from our pivoines, or our poppies from our pavots, we could resort to Latin (Paeonia and Papaver, for those keeping score at home).

  2. What a goofy name! Latin names are great, though sometimes it's nice to have a choice. A friend called me yesterday asking for recommendations for a plant for her to give to a friend in remembrance of her baby that died in March. One idea was hellebores, since they'd be blooming in March around here, but we thought we'd better not mention the latin name with the gift. Lenten rose would be much nicer.

  3. As I was reading your post, I was thinking that people must have come up with interesting/fascinating/bizarre common names so they could remember plants. Thank heavens for Latin names (although I am usually drawn to plants because of their common names). They came in most handy when conversing with my unilingual French in-laws about plants.

  4. Barry, on Bill and Ben, I loved Weed in particular. Especially how she (he?) would only say, "Weeed!"

    I must say that I do adore many common names, and I jockey back and forth between Latin and my fave common names, depending on which one I like the sound of better. I am always happy to say "Viper's Bugloss" and "Ox-eye Daisy". But I also love to say "Persicaria Persicifolia." Depending on the situation, like.

  5. In favour of Latin then, are you?
    Well, you would be, being Canadian.

    And there was me wondering why Canada has 'Nova Scotia', when the US make do with 'New England'.

    Come to think of it, I wouldn't really know what 'Nova' that might have been 🙂

  6. Helen I loved the old black and white version of the flowerpot men and the little weeeeeeed! I did latin in school for 3 years and I prefer using latin rather than the common names as I have found some common names in this area can relate to a couple of plants.

  7. Latin is great, but most of my friends prefer the common names. Even nursery workers often use the common name. When I spout off Latin names, they look at me like I'm trying to be smart or something!

  8. I always learn the latin first, but some common names are too brilliant to ignore.

    My personal favourite is Welcome-Home-Husband-Though-Never-So-Drunk' (so much better than Sedum acre 'Aureum')

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