Dinner Friday with Amanda Walker at Three Seasons (fusion Vietnamese), with wonderful plants (especially orchids) and cut flowers all over the place. Which moved Amanda to ask me (as a plant person) about a flowering shrub used in plantings on the Google campus: “It looks like a bottle-brush”, she said. “Oh, that would be a bottle-brush plant”, I replied. She stared at me for a moment, until she realized I was not just repeating her description, but was in fact offering a common name. She searched for it under that name on her iPhone, and was immediately rewarded with a photo of a Callistemon in flower, along the lines of this bottlebrush, the Callistemon citrinus variety ‘Spendens’:
The probkem is that the common name for the plant is also a pretty good brief description of it, so there’s room for uncertainty as to whether you’re being offered a name or a description.
The problem arises especially with people who aren’t well-acquainted with the culture the common names come from: tourists and recent immigrants. In at least two cases in my experience (both involving birds rather than plants) some confusion has arisen for such speakers, who were inclined to see what was offered as a name as instead a puzzling repeat of a description they had just given.