Mistaken Identity: Will the Real Tropical Sage Please Step Forward

By Laurie Sheldon

The image shown is of a non-native
Salvia sp. often referred to as "tropical sage"
As one of the purveyors of the FNPS Facebook page, I routinely search the news for information I think our followers will be interested in. Sometimes I'm cued in to relevant stories on Twitter, but, more often than not, my Google news alert delivers "this just in" articles about native plants and other environmental tidbits straight to my inbox. Sunday morning (10/21) I was notified of an article about tropical sage in the newspaper, the author of which happened/happens to be a friend of mine. What I found to be somewhat alarming, however, was the photo attached to the story. It was not of the native tropical sage, Salvia coccinea, but of Salvia splendens - a plant from Brazil with the same common name. Uh oh. My friend and I had both signed up to for a field trip scheduled for the same day, so I waited until I saw her to ask her if she'd seen the final print. She had not. Double uh oh. "I sent them a picture," she told me, which I completely believe. I've been to her house a bazillion times, and I know first hand that a photo op of the native tropical sage described in her article is literally waiting right outside her front door.

Plants' common names are like people's nicknames in
that they are rarely unique to one plant/person.
What went wrong, then, and why do I care? Am I being rather petty? I think not. The problem here can be summed up in two words: common names. And it's not only MY problem - it's everyone's problem. Allow me to anthropomorphize for a moment. Picture this: you make lunch plans with a friend who works as a photographer at The Daily Planet. You decide to meet at your friend's office in downtown Metropolis, where there are dozens of restaurants in walking distance. You get to the glass front doors of the building and find that they're locked - a security measure you didn't anticipate. A phone next to the door directly connects you to the newspaper's receptionist, who asks who you're there to visit and if you have an appointment. You tell the receptionist you're there to meet a  photographer whom you refer to as "Flash" (your friend's nickname), and that your friend is expecting you. The receptionist tells you to wait and that your friend will be with you momentarily. A few minutes later, you watch an entire elevator full of people unload, walk over to the glass doors at the front of the building, look at you, and watch all but one of them return to the elevator. What happened? They're all nicknamed "Flash," you big dummy! It would be equally silly to walk into an Irish bar looking for someone called "Red." Why? Because "Flash" and "Red" are nicknames that broadly describe a single behavior/activity or a facet of appearance. They fail to call out a defining fingerprint, social security number, or the DNA that can only point in the direction of a single, unique individual.

My idea of a "flamboyant tree" is
not necessarily universal
Plants' common names are similar in that regard. In fact, the same plant can have as many different common names as there are languages to describe it. I realized this when I worked at a nursery in Miami. A customer walked in asking for a "flamboyan," which, roughly translated, means a "flamboyant tree." Say what? Um, sorry, we're all out of the Liberace species you're looking for (rolling eyes). Fortunately, one of my co-workers knew that a "flamboyant tree" is the equivalent of a "royal poinciana." Of course, if the customer had referred to it by its botanical name, Delonix regia, there would never have been a moment of confusion. (As a side note, it is not native to Florida)

What is so intimidating about botanical names? I'd really like to know. I get that it's frustrating when a plant that you learned to identify when it was in the Zingiberaceae seems to have suddenly jumped ship to the Costaceae. I feel your pain - really! Isn't it more frustrating, though, not to know what someone is talking about because they refuse to embrace the UNIQUE NAME a plant is given? Like most sciences, plant taxonomy isn't static. DNA sequencing has provided us with information that we could previously only hypothesize about based on morphological characteristics. It is nothing short of awesome! Sure, it forces us to rethink faulty assumptions we'd previously made. Big whoop! If it wasn't for someone who challenged the scientific beliefs of his time, we'd all live on top of one another, fearful of falling off the edge of a flat earth.

Native "tropical sage" - Salvia coccinea -
comes in hues of peach and red.
So what am I driving at, and how can I possibly tie it into an article with a mismatched photo? Someone could read this article, see the photo (top of page) of the "tropical sage" that big box stores are all about selling, then recognize and purchase it the next time they go out to pick up a plunger or mulch - all the while believing that they're getting a Florida native. Those of us with a solid hold on what is and is not native represent an infinitesimal percent of the population. We know the botanical names and families of plants by heart, and have attempted to pass that information on to those whose enthusiasm could be measured in a thimble, only to be greeted with the "whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" look. Individuals who decide of their own will and volition to read an article about natives, on the other hand, have demonstrated an interest in and willingness to learn - they're primed for a formal introduction. A first and last name, c/o the 250+ year-old system of binomial nomenclature, makes the most logical starting point. A firm handshake, not so much.We cannot shy away from botanical names for fear that they are off-putting or difficult to remember - especially when discussing natives. If you want Polaner All Fruit you don't ask for jelly. Likewise, if you want the native "tropical sage" you have to ask for Salvia coccinea.

The label on the left is in a F.L.E.P.P.C.Category 1 invasive from
Ceylon. The pot on the right contains a native of east Asia.
Misleading information about plant material is pervasive in high-traffic nurseries, where it serves both to bolster sales of non-natives and cloud the reality of plant origins. Bearing in mind that one of the missions of the Florida Native Plant Society is to promote the preservation, conservation, and restoration of this state's native plants and native plant communities through education, it is our responsibility to provide the public with the tools to see through the turbidity created by marketing phrases like "Flowers for Florida" and " "Florida Friendly." The most effective way to obtain that clarity is through both  genus and specific epithet.


Individuals who feel that no blog is complete without a bulleted list may be comforted by the following:

  • Only good for the language (and often region) being used. Even in English, what they call a plant in the Bahamas may be different from Florida, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, etc..  therefore one species of plant may have several common names depending on where you are in addition to what language you speak. Scientific names are the same whether you are in China, Mozambique, or Iceland.
  • Often shared by many different species of plants. Pennyroyal is a common name for both the native Piloblephis rigida, and the commercial herb Mentha pulegium;  Firebush is a common name used for not only the native Hamelia patens, but also all of the non-native “look-alikes”.
  • Occasionally misleading. Australian-pine is not a pine.  Scrub rosemary is not a rosemary, although it is in the same family.
  • Uncommon! Most plants in the world don’t have common names.
  • Unregulated. Scientific names must follow the rules set forth by the International Code of Nomenclature. Anyone can call any plant whatever common name he/she wants.


Image sources and additional credits:
Sage article - screenshot of undisclosed newspaper
Photographer by Microsoft Office
Flamboyant tree illustration by Laurie Sheldon
Peach Salvia coccinea by Shirley Denton
Red Salvia coccinea by Shirley Denton
Misleading plant labels/containers by Laurie Sheldon


Rufino Osorio said…
Speaking of common names, hereabouts, "scrub rosemary" means Ceratiola ericoides (a plant in the rhododendron family also known as "Florida rosemary"). I kept wondering why you thought it was in the same family as rosemary (the mint family, Lamiaceae) when I suddenly realized that you meant Conradina species, which hereabouts are referred to as conradina (the genus name is used as the common name).

Note that the code governing plant names is the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.
Based on your comments, I imagine that you'd concur... botanical names are definitely the way to go. Thanks for reading this post. I hope you enjoyed it!
Anonymous said…
This made me laugh several times, and as well as this; I agree. Plants are given Botanical names for classification, and nothing else. So if your looking for a specific plant, use the correct term.

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