What do you call that thing connected to a wall that water comes out of?

I call it a drinking fountain. But I have friends who call it a water fountain. Or a bubbler.

Or what about that fizzy drink you get in a can? I used to call it pop, but now increasingly find myself calling it soda. In some places it’s simply known as Coke…no matter the actual variety or flavor.

Though these differences in names may be confusing for a minute, they are usually fairly easy to resolve. The same is true about plant names; but the confusion with plant names can sometimes result in unintended (and unwanted) consequences.

field bindweed, convolvulus arvensis, convolvulaceae

Field bindweed – the unofficial “state flower of Utah” – taking over a rocky parkstrip.

In Utah, the state flower is the sego lily (Calochortus nuttalli ), but a lot of people here like to joke that it really should be morning glory, since that is so ubiquitous throughout the state. Now, perhaps some of you reading this are thinking, “Well, why not morning glory? It’s a pretty flower!” The horticulturist in me would agree; there are very pretty morning glory species. They are easy to grow, they come in a variety of colors, and they are great climbing plants to be grown on a trellis or to cover a fence. But now, some of you are thinking, “Are you crazy? Why would you want to grow morning glory? It’s a terrible weed!”

morning glory flowers, ipomaea, convolvulaceae

The ornamental morning glories have much brighter-colored flowers, and much bigger heart-shaped leaves.

On the other hand, if I turn weed-scientist on you and start going on and on about field bindweed and how it’s such a problem, and how hard it is to get rid of because it can send roots meters deep into the soil, and its seeds can remain viable for 40 years….well you might be congratulating yourself on not having such a terrible nuisance in your yard, all the while wondering the best way to control morning glory.

See the problem? Morning glory or field bindweed. Whichever common name you call it, we might be talking about the same plant. Or we might not; after all they both are members of an extensive family – thousands of species grouped into a handful of genus all under the umbrella of the Convolvulus family. You might hear how morning glory is on the noxious weed list and so, being the good citizen you are, you go and eradicate your newly planted innocuous Ipomaea sp. Or you’ll hear that field bindweed is on the noxious weed list, but thinking all you have is morning glory, you’ll be frustrated down the road when ALL you have is Convolvulus arvensis.

field bindweed, convolvulus arvensis, convolvulaceae

Though weedy, with much smaller leaves, the field bindweed can also have bi-colored, fairly showy flowers.

Another weed vs. ornamental common name mix-up I sometimes hear is that of “lamb’s ear”. The lamb’s ear I think of is Stachys byzantina, a lower-growing, clumping, fuzzy, gray-green leaved plant with spikes of purple flowers. A much better looking plant, in my opinion, than Verbascum thapsus , another plant which occasionally gets called “lamb’s ear”. The officially recognized common name by the Weed Science Society of America is “common mullein”; I’ve also heard it called “boy scout toilet paper” (in reference to the soft leaves) and woolly mullein, but my preferred version is “woolly mully”, so called by my four-year-old niece.

verbascum thapsus, common mullein, woolly mullein, lamb's ear

Common mullein, woolly mullein, boy-scout-toilet-paper….just don’t call it lamb’s ear and get it confused with the ornamental lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina).

And these are just two examples of the confusion that can occur with common names. I’m not saying that you need to know the scientific names of everything – the common names are sometimes hard enough to remember – but it might be helpful to keep a few in your back pocket.

That, or keep your favorite weed scientist/horticulturist on call.