When I moved to Australia and encountered a jasmine bush, my first reaction was to deny its name. Plant names are funny like that, you see. Because a plant name often comes from its scientific, Latin name, it can become a cognate – a word with a similar origin, that sounds the same in different languages (like ‘family’ in English and ‘familia’ in Spanish).
However, even though cognates are fascinating, this is not a story about linguistics, but once again about convention, and how it can differ from the objective truth, or, in any case, the “truth” reflected in the scientific name.
I had good reason to doubt the jasmine I saw in Australia was actually jasmine. In Latvia, where I’m from, ‘jasmīns’ is a shrub, not a vine. Yes, it has white flowers, and it smells sweet, but otherwise it looks totally different. I was puzzled by this difference in naming convention, but that’s what happens when you move countries – things tend to be different. I accepted it and moved on.
However, curiosities like that tend to stay at the back of one’s mind, so at some point I decided to investigate which of the two jasmines I now had encountered was the ‘real’ one – my criterion for real being the taxonomic genus name Jasminum, because this is where the common jasmine plant, the one in fragrances, belongs. Or so I thought, anyway.
My first step lead me to a quick discovery – the plant I had always known to be jasmine is actually mock orange, Philadelphus coronarius. It’s a southern European native from the Hydrangaceae family, and gets its English name from its similarity to orange blossom. No relation to actual jasmine. Smells quite different, too.
Here you would think the matter was settled, then – the jasmine plant in my front yard was the ‘real’ jasmine, and I had learned a lesson on conventional name errors.
Wikipedia has an interesting section on the page about the Jasminum genus of the Oleaceae family. It mentions a whole bunch of other plants not in the genus that are referred to as ‘jasmine’.
One of these is ‘star jasmine’, an evergreen liana native to eastern and southeastern Asia. The family? Apocynaceae. The Latin name? Trachelospermum jasminoides. Relation to actual jasmin? None.
That is the plant in my front yard.
The real thing, the one I’ve been questing after, is Jasminum officinale, and it looks like this.
[Update 19-Mar-2017] A kind reader has sent me an email pointing out that I’ve misled you all. Below is actually a photo of Jasminum polyanthum, which is really common in Australian gardens. (J. officinale may or may not look like this.)
At this point, you might be wondering what I’m getting at. Frankly, I’m not even sure. The genus Jasminum contains 217 to 229 species. This article could continue for a while.
I believe I have reached the conclusion that it doesn’t matter much. After all, would the real, the false, the misnamed plants smell less sweet by any other name?