Over the years I’ve seen an astonishing number of misspellings of my favorite genus, clematis. As you can see from the 23 listed above (in alphabetical order) it is quite a wide range. And no, I didn’t make these up!
I can only speculate that one of the reasons for the huge discrepancies in spelling it correctly is the confusion surrounding how to pronounce this word. The most common pronunciations are: CLEM-uh-tis and clem-AT-tis. You will also hear British gardeners pronouncing it: clem-MAY-tis. Not only are there a tremendous amount of misspellings out there, I have encountered an astounding number of interesting pronunciations (or should I say mispronunciations) as well.
What the Experts Say
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the correct pronunciation is CLEM-uh-tis and “a frequent mispronunciation is clem`mātis”. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary both CLEM-uh-tis and clem-AT-tis are acceptable. However, since CLEM-uh-tis is the first one listed, this would mean it is the preferred one. Most clematarians, including two of my horticultural heroes, Tony Advent and Dan Hinkley, pronounce it CLEM-uh-tis.
What the Queen Has Heard
It would not surprise me that there are many of you reading this article who are pronouncing it clem-AT-tis since that is the most common pronunciation I hear. There is no question in your mind it is the correct way of saying it since that is how you have always heard it pronounced since you were knee-high to your mother’s gardening clogs.
What the Queen Says
I say CLEM-uh-tis and have from the very beginning and since no one in my Southern California neighborhood (USDA Zone 10a) was growing them back then, I wasn’t told differently. I didn’t think much about the pronunciation conflict until I started my reign as the Clematis Queen. I then thought it was my royal duty to enlighten gardeners with the preferred horticultural pronunciation of CLEM-uh-tis. However, after a couple of years, I decided not to worry about it and came to the magnanimous decision that it was far better for gardeners to grow my favorite genus no matter how they pronounced it.
For the Record
For those of you who would like to be horticulturally correct, pronounce it CLEM-uh-tis. The rest of you have my royal blessings to pronounce it anyway you would like, just be sure to grow them! I recently have heard that there are a few people who have aligned themselves with the clem-AT-tis name-camp and consider those of us who say CLEM-uh-tis are possibly hoity-toity (i.e. pompous). I can only speak for myself, but my choice in using the CLEM-uh-tis pronunciation is not based on some sort of superiority complex, I just simply want to pronounce it correctly.
Clematis [ˈklɛmətɪs] Greek word for some kind of climbing or trailing plant.
In my opinion the whole mess could have been easily avoided had the wise scholars who originally assigned botanical names to plants given it another name. If I had been on the naming committee (okay it was a little bit before my time) I think Elegantis (which is Latin for “most elegant”) would have been the perfect botanical designation for such a gorgeous flowering vine! But alas, it is stuck with the moniker, clematis. Hopefully in the not too near future, more gardeners will learn how to spell it correctly even though there may never be total agreement on how to say it.