What's in a name?

The popularity of books like 'RHS Latin for Gardeners' and 'RHS Botany for Gardeners' has shown that there is an appetite for understanding plant names

The full Latin names can tell us important things about a plant, such as colour, form and size. For instance it can be helpful to know that any plants with ‘repens’ in their name are creeping or low growing in habit. Cultivar names are even more informative – the last part of the name can contain interesting things about who discovered, bred or first popularised a plant.

Portrait of Ellen Ann WillmottSometimes it is very clear who is being referred to - Rose ‘Constance Spry’ or Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ both refer to well-known horticultural personalities. However sometimes the references are a little more obscure. Big nurseries produced hundreds of plants, often naming them after loyal customers, family members or the donor of the original plant. There are some good books in the Lindley Library which will help you, for instance Who Does Your Garden Grow by Alex Pankhurst.

Left: Portrait of Ellen Ann Willmott (1858-1934). Miss Willmott spent extravagantly on her gardens and plant expeditions. She was one of the great characters of British gardening.

Six Hills Nursery catalogue 1914Occasionally the cultivar name refers to a place rather than a person. Although it went out of business in 1954, Six Hills Nursery lives on in the names of several plants including Penstemon ‘Six Hills Hybrid’. The nursery stood next to the Great North Road at Stevenage and was founded by Clarence Elliott. In the first half of the 20th century he was one of the best-known and most respected personalities in the gardening world. He founded the Alpine Garden Society and Six Hills was famous for its alpines. The firm produced catalogues with very pretty covers, often depicting stylised mountain scenes.

Above right: Plant catalogue for Six Hills Nursery, 1914. The Lindley Library holds one of the most comprehensive collections of nursery catalogues in the world.

Strangely, the plant carrying the Six Hills name that is most commonly seen in gardens today is not a delicate alpine, but the large and rangy Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’. Russian catmint had been growing in British gardens for more than a century by the 1930s when Clarence Elliott spotted a plant in a local garden which was much taller than normal and with larger flowers.

Nepeta 'Six Hills Giant' in the Cottage Garden at WisleyHe begged an offshoot and then propagated a saleable stock which he named after his nursery. Eighty years later it continues to be popular and the RHS Plantfinder lists lots of suppliers.


Left: Nepeta 'Six Hills Giant' in the Country Garden at RHS Garden Wisley.





Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment.

Even if you are not an RHS member, the Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics.

RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries – visit our online catalogue.

Advertise here

Discuss this

for the site or to share your experiences on this topic and seek advice from our community of gardeners.