Tips for garden writers from a science writer

Much as I am itching to continue the current discussion on cultivars of native plants, I’ve got to wait until next week (my seminar schedule has me hammered – doing my third one this week tomorrow).  So instead I thought I’d throw out some suggestions for those nonscientists who blog and/or write about all things planted.

First of all, I do enjoy reading blogs, articles and books by nonscientists who venture into plant and soil sciences.  But there are common errors that both interrupt the flow and – fairly or unfairly – can cause me to question the writer’s grasp of the subject matter.  Here are some of them in no particular order:


1)  Common names are not capitalized unless they contain a proper noun.  (This is a general taxonomic rule for plants – and sorry, I didn’t write the rules!)

2)  Scientific names are always italicized or underlined; the first letter of the genus is capitalized, the species name is usually not.  (Also, they’re not “Latin names” – many scientific names actually come from Greek roots.)

3)  While we’re on scientific names and in a nod to our discussion of cultivars, let’s address that one too.  When a scientific name is followed by a cultivar name, the cultivar name is either preceded by cv., or is set off in single quotes.  The cultivar name is capitalized.  So this is how the weeping blue atlas cedar would appear: Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’ or Cedrus atlantica cv. Glauca Pendula.

4)  Plant family names always end in -aceae, which literally means “family.”  When someone writes “the Asteraceae family” they are being redundant.  (This always reminds me of a scene from Mickey Blue Eyes, where the characters are discussing a restaurant called “The La Trattoria” – which, of course, translates to “the the restaurant.”)

Scientific information:

1)  The word “data” is a plural noun (datum is the singular form).  Therefore, “data” must take plural verbs.

2)  “Proving” that a product or practice works.  The philosophy behind the scientific method states that one can never definitively “prove” anything.  Thus, we can have results that support a hypothesis, or we can disprove it.  (Yes, marketers do this, but garden writers shouldn’t.)


1)  “Pesticide” is a generic word that means “pest killer”.  Herbicides kill plants, fungicides kill fungi, and so on.  Many nonscientists incorrectly think that pesticide means the same thing as insecticide.  It does not.

2)  Flowers and fruits are reproductive structures of angiosperms (the flowering plants). Conifers do not have flowers, nor do they have fruits; their seeds are born on cones.  Many scientists, as well as nonscientists, incorrectly label the cones of Ginkgo and Taxus (yew) as fruits.

I’m sure my GP colleagues can come up with some other ones, and maybe you can as well.  Comment away!

16 thoughts on “Tips for garden writers from a science writer”

  1. I’ve wrestled with nomenclature forever, and am happy to have some guidelines, Linda. My first boss taught me to capitalize the first letter of common names; that may be because he was English, but more likely he was taught that way by a previous boss of his who thought it gave more ‘tone’ to the words. Now I know…I hadn’t known that ginkgo was a conifer, and your point about cones vs. fruits had me looking up juniper and learning that those blue berries are also cones. This post is just great — thanks for the lesson.

  2. Thanks – I think – for this immensely patronising piece. If anyone writing about gardening doesn’t understand these basics, why are they doing it in the first place?

    But of course understanding things and interpreting and communicating them to an non-ivory-tower-audience is quite different.

  3. If I remember correctly, the tech. term for a yew “berry” is aril isn’t it? Anyway, as a retail horticulturist I deal with home-owners. Junipers and yews have berries. Ginkgos have fruits (if the customer knows what one is and that they get fruit) Asters are in the Aster family, and to them I speak Latin. I will admit to breaking probably all of those points in my blog at some time, and I actually DO know better. But I spend my day mostly talking to customers who DON’T know better. It kind of rubs off. I don’t always have time (or the thought-like at 1am when I just want to sleep) to edit my blog to be accurate in the little details that industry pros will know (and usually forgive). I probably should at least use spellcheck though. Feel free to comment on my blog if I’m ever wrong, learning is a good thing.

  4. I’ve been a garden speaker and writer for over 10 years and have always tried to be interesting AND accurate in the information I give. With herbs and native plants as my focus, I find the botanic names are immensly helpful in avoiding confusion. For example there are three native plants called Mexican oregano. Confusion in terminology can come in even the little things like pesticide, herbicide and insecticide. My goal when writing is to provide accurate information because I know how much drek is floating out there in cyberspace.

  5. What about botanical names that double as common names? Take clematis, for instance; should it be capitalized and italicized, or treated as a common name as I just did? Is either acceptable?

  6. Wow, where to start? John, I’m sorry this came across as patronizing. I used to be the science editor for MasterGardener Magazine (now sadly defunct) and these were some of the glitches that were commonly made. It really was intended to be a helpful post.
    Joe, I think writers could integrate some of the correct terminology in their writing and use it as a “teaching moment.” And what’s wrong with writing for the scientific audience, like the GP crew? We like to read good garden writing too – not just science journals!
    Nick, like you I tend to me more informal in discussions than I am in writing and blogging. I think that’s ok.
    Wendy, you can do it either way: for instance, you can talk about rhododendrons or Rhododendron. (But with the scientific name, you can’t add an “s” to make it plural.)
    And thanks, Deb and Ann, for your input as well.

  7. Very useful info. I’m a master gardener and weekly garden writer for two local newspapers. I think using botany-speak to a “horthead” audience is fine. However, I don’t use botanical gobbledygook when writing my weekly articles. Which isn’t to say I won’t, it depends on how deep I’m digging into the subject matter. Regardless, the information you provided here is relevant and should be adhered to if and when necessary.

  8. Sometimes it is possible-and desirable-to include the common way of saying something and the more scientifically precise as well. That way the reader will still understand and will become more familiar with the scientific terminology. For example, I might say that a colchicum’s petals are tesselated (checkered). Or I might say the bulb (technically a corm) is larger than you might expect. And I might even link to a more technical explanation of what makes a corm different from a true bulb.

  9. Hmm… I could care less about most of those things. Writing to a non-science audience, clarity is all important. Yes, “asteraceae family” is redundant, but if your readers don’t know that -aceae means family, you’d better add it in English so they understand.
    Same for yew “fruits.” Call them cones, and most readers will have a completely incorrect image in their heads.
    I’m more concerned with people actually understanding the subject they are writing about, and explaining it clearly than using terminology suitable for a peer-reviewed journal.

  10. oh, and don’t get me started on the fact that fir trees do not have pine cones. Seriously, if the experts do not label plants correctly, how will those of us who wish to be correct ever learn?

  11. I admit I’ve gotten sloppy about not italicizing the Latin names. Thanks for the reminder, I will remedy that. I applaud your use of datum, and would add that “media” is plural, and the singular should be “medium.”

  12. I agree with Linda and others who say that one should be as correct as possible even when writing for the general public. The trick is to be both correct and clear. It certainly can be done. I think it is insulting to the public to think beginners don’t want information presented correctly. I often use the common name and then follow it (in parentheses) with the scientific name. Since I present information both ways, readers can choose to ignore the more correct information if they prefer.
    Presenting information incorrectly or incompletely prevents readers from moving toward a more correct understanding of horticulture. If we are writing to beginners, don’t we hope they will become expert? Or are we content to be the ones who know and only dispense tidbits?
    In answer to the question about whether the genus name alone, when used as a common name, should be italicized or capitalized, in practice this may be determined by the “style sheet” of the publication for which one is writing. This is also probably true sometimes of other details of typeface or punctuation.

  13. I appreciate your sentiment, but I wish you went further with this post. I attended the nomenclature seminar at the 2009 GWA symposium and my questions started right where Mark finished. Specifically, what do I do with all that other stuff in the name? The series is often promoted on marketing materials and shows up in articles so I want to include the series in the name even though it’s not really a part of the botanical name (like PW’s Supertunia). Where should Supertunia appear in the name? And what if a plant has a recognizable trademarked name in addition to a recognizable cultivar (like Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’ aka Orange MeadowbriteTM)? Or possibly worse, what if that cultivar name isn’t recognizable or pronounceable (like Echinacea ‘CBGcone2’ aka Pixie MeadowbriteTM)? If I put both names on some tags, shouldn’t I also include the nonsensical ‘CBGcone2’ to be consistent? Or, my absolute least favorite, what about plants that combine all of that (like Echinacea Big Sky Harvest MoonTM ‘Matthew Saul’ PP17652). That’s a really long name to put on a plant tag and it doesn’t even include the specific epithet. Two names for the same plant is confusing, but if I opt for the more popular of the two and my local garden writer chooses the other, then the end user can walk right past Art’s Pride thinking they really want Orange Meadowbrite and leave with neither. This of course doesn’t take into account name changes (like the Aster disaster) or names with cultivars in another language that have been thoughtfully (and inappropriately, I believe) translated to English. Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’ is a very common plant in the industry and a past PPA Perennial Plant of the Year, but it should actually read ‘Feuerhexe’. How many gardeners looking for ‘Firewitch’ are going to confidently pick up ‘Feuerhexe’ instead? We spend a LOT of time considering nomenclature to make it as correct as possible on our website and plant tags – I can tell you, it’s not as easy as most people think. You’d help us a lot if you’d tell us how to handle each of these situations.

  14. Overall, I like the information presented here. It is a useful reminder that helps us communicate effectively about gardening. However, I could seriously do without the patronizing tone throughout the piece. I think that this type of tone only serves to create a gap between you (and the information you are trying to get across) and the audience.

    1. Sam, there’s a fine line between patronizing and explaining. I really try to avoid using language that makes anyone feel dumb, because that’s not my intent. But this is a list of rules and most lists of rules can give a reader the feeling of being lectured to. I suppose I could have done it with more humor, but just didn’t have the time to spend going that direction.

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