Say it like you mean it and you can’t be wrong

By Erin Schanen

“The way you pronounce Nicotiana puts me in a entire new league of abhorence.”

I appreciated this comment, recently left on a YouTube video I made almost a year ago, not because I’m a glutton for punishment, but because in the lazy world of social media, I was impressed that the commenter felt strongly enough to bother writing a complete sentence, regardless of a couple of grammatical errors.

The pronunciation that so offended the commenter was nuh-kow-shee-ah-nuh, the botanical name for flowering tobacco. And, unfortunately for the commenter, the video was a growing guide dedicated specifically to that plant, in which I must have said the word at least 20 times.

I’m not sure how I was supposed to pronounce it. Perhaps he or she prefers the pronunciation with a hard “T,” and a hard “C,” as in nick-oh-tee-ah-nuh.

Whichever pronunciation he or she preferred, I know one thing — we were both right.

I can say that with certainty because there are no correct pronunciations of botanical names.

Sometimes called the “Latin name,” botanical names derive from Latin and Greek places and even random people’s names. But it is only a written language, not a spoken language, and as such there are no correct, or incorrect, pronunciations.

Perhaps that’s why every gardener thinks the way they pronounce a botanical name is the right way.

Ask a group of 10 gardeners how to pronounce Clematis, the showstopping “queen of the climbers,” and half will tell you it’s kle-MAH-tis and the other half will swear it’s KLEM-uh-tis.

Much like common plant names, botanical name pronunciations can vary between regions, countries and individual gardeners. Written botanical names, on the other hand, are shared across the world, so Aegopodium podragraria will always be the same plant to all people in all places, but ground elder, bishop’s weed, goutweed and snow on the mountain — all common names for the plant — might conjure different plants to different people.

The key to pronouncing botanical names, which can be an intimidating jumble of alphabet soup, is confidence. You need to say them like you named them yourself. And as long as the person you’re talking to understands what plant you’re referring to, the mission has been accomplished.

If there’s one thing my commenter proves (other than that abhorrence really needs two Rs), it’s that gardeners have very strong feelings about how botanical names should be pronounced.

The Clematis argument seems to be particularly divisive, for no matter how you say it, any gardener who favors the other pronunciation may say you got it wrong. I won’t lie, even though I know neither pronunciation is wrong, I think the way I say it is right, and at least a handful of Clematis experts agree with me. We’re not asking the other Clematis experts what they think.

But  whether you’re talking about Clematis or Nicotiana, I don’t care how you say it, as long as you grow it.

Erin Schanen is an Ozaukee Master Gardener who lives and gardens in the Town of Belgium. She is the author of the blog The Impatient Gardener.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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