Intro to Botanical Names Part One: Understanding Names
By Cynthia Welte
Those of us who work closely with plants are frequently asked why we use the long, hard-to-remember scientific names instead of simpler common names.
To illustrate why, what comes to mind when I ask you to picture a cedar tree? You might be thinking of any of a dozen conifers. But if I’m talking about Thuja plicata, there is only plant I could mean: the Western red cedar (also called Pacific red cedar and giant arborvitae.)
Multiple common names for the same plant cause further confusion. Another example: what I know as goat’s beard, someone from Texas may call bride’s feathers. But they are the same plant: Aruncus dioicus.
Cedar and goat’s beard are valid terms, and there’s nothing wrong with using common names. We often use both when we’re communicating. But plant folks work with many thousands of plants and need to be precise by using shared terminology. The beautiful thing about botanical names is that they are the same around the world, in any language.
A side note: you frequently hear the term “Latin name.” While there are Latin roots for many names, others come from Greek, German, proper nouns, and so on. I prefer to use “scientific name” or “botanical name.”
Scientific names are binomials (two names) written as Genus species (think of our own scientific name for humans, Homo sapiens). You’ll sometimes see additional words after these denoting further divisions into forms, varieties, subspecies, and cultivars.
Botanical names are written in italics, except cultivars. A cultivar is a cloned selection, and is written in non-italics with single quotes, ‘Cultivar.’ The genus name and cultivar name are capitalized, while everything else is lower case. Examples: Rosa glauca, Fuchsia magellanica var. gracilis ‘Variegata,’ and Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’ (the “x” means this is a named hybrid).
Some names come from proper names, like Forsythia, but often there are clues within the name describing a significant feature of the plant. That could be its appearance, where it comes from, it’s growth habit, and so on. Here are a few that can tell you something about the plant:
- alba: white
- carpa: referring to its fruit
- columnaris or fastigiata: tall and narrow
- -flora: referring to its flowers
- -folia or –phylla: referring to its leaves
- glauca: covered in bloom (very fine powdery substance) that looks blue or gray
- macro-: big
- micro-: small
- nana or pumila: small, dwarf
- procumbens, prostrata, repens, or horizontalis: growing flat on the ground.
- pseudo– or –oides: similar to (ex, Gardenia jasminoides)
- pubescens: downy
- rosea or rubra: red
- sinensis: from China
- tomentosa: hairy
Terms can be combined, so you’ll see things like Vaccinium glaucoalbum (Himalayan huckleberry), named for its fruit which has a blueish-white bloom.
This is just a short list and there are many more to learn. If you sort your plant tags or look through catalogs this winter, see if you notice any of these terms. Or if another term comes up multiple times, see if you can figure out what it might mean.
This article is just an intro; there’s a lot more to the naming of plants. For further reading, check out these books:
Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners by William T. Stearn
Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison
Next week we’ll dive into pronunciation!