I was chatting with the knowledgeable owner of a local nursery. “I can’t resist these hew-KER-uhs,” I told her as she rang up my purchase of three heuchera plants. “Oh, yes, the YOO-ker-uh is very popular,” she replied diplomatically. “YOO-ker-uh!” I thought. “Isn’t that a card game?” I hurried home to find out whose pronunciation was correct.
I discovered that the heuchera plant is properly called HYOO-ker-ah, with a bit of the “h” sounded at the beginning, and with the stress on the first syllable. I had indeed been mispronouncing the name of one of my favorite perennials! Heuchera falls into the category of "people" plants -- those named for a person. In this case, the great standardizer of botanical nomenclature, Carl Linnaeus, sought to recognize German physician Johann Heinreich von Heucher. Many of us gardeners have become familiar with plant history and names primarily by reading books and consulting useful websites like Dave’s Garden. Unfortunately, though, being able to spell a plant’s name doesn’t guarantee that you will automatically pronounce it correctly.
As I sheepishly learned that day, Heuchera preserves an accurate pronunciation of a person’s name.* Plants named for an individual with a one-syllable surname are easy and straightforward to say, like dahlia (DAH-lee-ah), after Swedish botanist Anders Dahl, or zinnia (ZIN-ee-uh) after German botanist Johann Gottfried Zinn. Hosta (HOS-ta), named after physician Nicolaus Thomas Host, is also simple, but it should no doubt more correctly be called HOSE-ta, with a long “o”. Fuchsia (FEW-sha), honoring German botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) , should technically be FOOK-see-ah or FEWK-see-ah. The name has been mispronounced by Americans for so long that FEW-sha is commonly accepted, and the word is often misspelled as “fuschia”. Let’s hope that Herr Fuchs would be more flattered than dismayed by the fact that millions of children mispronounce the crayon color named after his flower.
When a plant honoree’s name contains two or more syllables, pronunciation might seem more complicated, but it’s really not, once you get the hang of it. With boltonia (bol-TONE-ee-ah), the lovely North American daisy-like wildflower named after English botanist James Bolton, you emphasize the second syllable, even though Bolton’s name is pronounced with an emphasis on the first. This is also true of rudbeckia (rud-BEK-ee-ah), after Swedish scientist Olof Rudbeck the Younger, and mertensia (mer-TEN-see-ah), after German botanist Franz Karl Mertens. But brunnera, named after Swiss botanist Samuel Brunner, may be pronounced either BRUN-a-ra or bruh-NEER-uh, depending on which source you consult. The three-syllable surname Tradescant -- for English plantsman John Tradescant the Elder -- becomes accented on the third rather than the first syllable in the plant name tradescantia (trad-ess-KANT-ee-uh).
The plant name buddleia sounds quite different from the name of the person it honors, English clergyman Adam Buddle, which is a probably a good thing. Its correct pronunciation, BUD-lee-uh, conjures up a vision of a delicate shrub covered in blossoms. BUD-ul-ee-ah doesn't have the same ring, and who would want the blah-sounding buh-DUL-lee-ah in their gardens?
The difficult pronunciation of kniphofia (choose from either nip-HOE-fee-uh or ny-FOE-fee-ah), after German physician and botanist Johann Hieronymus Kniphof, leads most gardeners to instead call this plant by one of its more descriptive common names, red hot poker or torch lily.
When you ask for perovskia (per-OV-skee-uh) at the garden center, you may feel as if you are ordering a beverage containing vodka. The name of this shrubby perennial, native to the steppes of Central Asia, commemorates the 19th century Russian general Vasily Alekseevich Perovsky. Practice saying "perovskia" once and you will want to say it again and again -- who knows, you may even be inspired to name a summer drink after it.
The pronunciation of two popular shrubs is sometimes tricky, even controversial. The weigela (either wye-JEE-luh or wye-GEE-luh) takes its name from German physician Christian Ehrenfried von Weigel, whose name most certainly would have been pronounced more like VI-gul. Forsythia, named for Scottish botanist William Forsyth, can be pronounced either for-SITH-ee-ah or for-SYE-thee-uh -- take your pick. You say to-MAY-to, I say to-MAH-to, to paraphrase Ira Gershwin.
As for my ever-growing collection of heucheras, I am now careful to pronounce their botanical name correctly. I’m sure Dr. Von HYOO-ker would appreciate it.
Check back here soon for Plant Pronunciation, Part 2, when I’ll discuss some botanical tongue-twisters!
*Please note that “HYOO-ker-ah” is the pronunciation given in every print dictionary and online plant pronunciation source I have consulted. However, my friend Carrie Lamont tells me that “heuch” in German is pronounced “hoyk", so perhaps this plant is more correctly called “HOYK-er-ah”. If you’re in doubt, just call heuchera by its common name, coral bells!
Sources: "100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names"; Diana Wells; 1997; Algonquin Books
Photos: Heucheras by wallygrom Johann Heinrich von Heucher (1677-1746) from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain And thanks to these DG members for the use of their photos: Dahlia ‘Rosella’ by flowerfrenzy Hosta ‘Halcyon’ by sanannie Fuchsia ‘Peppermint Stick’ by PotEmUp Zinnia haageana ‘Aztec Sunset’ by momcat Boltonia asteroides by mystic Rudbeckia fulgida by bob47 Mertensia virginica by designart Brunnera ‘Blue Angel’ by kniphofia Tradescantia virginiana by asturnut Buddleia davidii ‘Monrell’ by daryl Kniphofia ‘Elvira’ by kniphofia Perovskia atriplicifolia by designart Weigela florida by melody Forsythia ‘Northern Gold’ by kniphofia Heuchera sanguinea 'Splendens' by sylvain
About Gwen Bruno
After spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.