What do a Jack-in-the-Pulpit in your woods and the Elephant Ear in your 4-foot container have in common? Or Grandma’s philodendron? Or an Amorphophallus titanum – the 8-foot giant with the stinky, bulbous protrusion (possibly shocking to Grandma) that appears once per decade and causes lines to form at botanical gardens around the globe?

Answer: They are all in the plant family Aroid, the common name for Araceae, also called the Philodendron or Arum family. Members of a plant family have a lot in common, starting with broad structural features. In the case of Aroids, they all have a flowering structure – sometimes weird and dramatic – that includes a spathe (the pulpit) and a spadix. More about them and those daunting inflorescences in a minute.

Consider another plant family, this one familiar to us all: the Daisy or Aster family (Asteraceae). All the members – the genera (plural of genus) – have flower heads containing many tiny little flowers or florets. Picture a daisy: All those little yellow bumps in the flat part are the flowers. The Aster family, the largest family of flowering plants, has over 1,000 genera – dandelions, daisies, coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. Each genus is broken down further into species. In the case of the Aroid family, there are 104 genera, divided into over 3,500 species. Most are tropical plants, so we Northeasterners and houseplant collectors may get to know only a handful of them.

The value of a name

Now, why am I tormenting you with plant nomenclature, when you expected to be reading about Jack-in-the-Pulpits and other Aroids? Several reasons: You’re going to plant shows this month; you will be plant shopping soon; I want you to know what you’re talking about or buying. And if you’re going to mingle with gardeners and develop your horticulture passion or job, you need to get comfortable with plant names, mostly in Latin. It is not that difficult.

If they called you “Red” in kindergarten, are you using it to book a hotel room? Probably not. You’re using some proper name such as Jeremy Knight or Sarah Woodwright, and in case there are similarly named people, you’ll add an address, Social Security number or other identifying particulars. That’s how we know that you and only you are booking and paying for that room. It’s like that with plants.

Proper plant names are absolutely necessary to identify the plant that you mean, and the name will get you the same plant in Germany or Japan. It may suffice to talk about coneflowers or bluebells, if we’re conjuring a meadow scene or childhood memory, but if you want a garden plant for a certain purpose you’d better specify.

Three entirely different kinds of plants are called “bluebells” in my botanical encyclopedia, and the bluebell called Campanula includes 250 species of annuals or perennials, with countless cultivars. So I’d better say, Campanula carpatica ‘Blue Clips’ if I want that cute little (7-inch) edging plant, or Campanula glomerata ‘Joan Elliot’ if I want the 20-inch spreading beauty with large purple flowers.

Similarly, which coneflower might you want? Echinacea purpurea ‘Green Jewel’ (green flower, 30 inches tall) or Echinacea purpurea ‘Kim’s Knee-high’ (mauve-colored, 18 inches)? And to make it worse, if you just say “coneflower” in some countries or states, you’ll get a black-eyed Susan (a Rudbeckia) instead.

One last stop before we go back to the alluring Aroids: Plant people don’t go around saying whole, correct plant names all the time.(Does your family call you Samantha McGillicuddie every day?) Let’s say we’re talking or writing about a particular coneflower cultivar. Correctly, the genus and species are in italics, and the cultivar is in single quotes, like this: Echinacea purpurea ‘Sunset.’ What really happens is that when plant people know we’re talking about echinaceas, we’ll go for the shortcut and just say, “Echinacea ‘Sunset’,” dropping the species epithet (purpurea). That’s OK, if it works to get you the plant. Garden writers, however, and anyone communicating with a larger audience, have to be careful to be specific enough.

Exotic, exciting Aroids

If you want to add something exotic looking to your garden or your planters, there’s an Aroid for you. Let’s start with the genus Arisaema (Cobra Lily, Jack-in-the-Pulpit). My friend, Kathy Guest Shadrack, has been growing them in her Boston, N.Y., garden (often on tour during the National Garden Festival). For the “Wow!” effect, she recommends Arisaema sikokianum (also called Circumcised Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit). If the common name isn’t enough to make you gasp, the nearly black outer spathe and the bright white club-shaped spadix (Jack) will surely do so. It pops up almost too early in spring, so keep some mulch over it to protect from frost.

Her taller favorite is A. consanguineum. (Note, nomenclature learners: When you repeat the genus name, you can abbreviate it. That’s where the A came from.) Some of its cultivars grow over 3 feet and appear late in the season. “Every year I’m convinced it’s finally dead and then up it rises like a phoenix and in no time is dominating the garden ... leaves can be 18 inches or more across,” Kathy said.

From a trip to Tony Avent’s Plant Delights Nursery, in Raleigh, N.C., I also acquired an Arisaema ringens that grew 2-feet tall and amazes in midsummer with its gigantic, shiny tri-foliate leaves and striped spathe. Wow, indeed.

Where to get an Aroid? You may find an Arisaema or several cultivars, either native or exotic, in some area nurseries or garden centers. Drive. Shop. Seek. You probably already use Colocasia or Alocasia (Elephant Ears) in large containers. You should find Arum italicum tubers in bags at the garden center or at Plantasia (March 21-24 at the Fairgrounds Event Center and Expo Center in Hamburg); plant them for attractive ground-covering foliage, interesting pale green spathes and dramatic orange berry spikes later.

An Amorphophallus may appear in a good houseplant department, and be sure to watch for its dramatic and stinky kin to perform at the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens. It’s a plant family worth knowing.

And do notice, no matter how resistant you may have been to Latin nomenclature, you read those last paragraphs quite easily. End of the lesson.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.