Latin Plant Names Explained

Plants are often referred to either by their Common or Botanical (Scientific /Latin) Name. While this scientific classification of plants may be confusing, it can also be demystified with a little explanation.

What's in a Name?

We often refer to plants by their Common Name, whereas botanists and the more serious gardener will refer to them by their Botanical Name, sometimes also called their Scientific Name or Latin Name. However, this is not snobbery, or intellectual elitism. Understanding the scientific naming and classification system of plants not only removes any ambiguity when referring to a plant, but the scientific name of a plant can also give you some tremendous clues as to the nature of the plant and is cultivation requirements.

Many scientific plant names are often derived from a Greek description of the nature or look of the plant, or after the person that discovered them. They are also often named after their place of origin. As these scientific names often provide us with a clue as to the plant's nature, a plant's scientific name is now referred to as its Botanical Name.

Early Developments

For centuries people would refer to plants using a Common Name. This system sufficed for a long time, but with the rapid advancement of scientific endeavours, things could get difficult, with two not so distant communities referring to exactly the same plant, but with completely different local names.

Clearly a change was necessary to remove this confusion and any potential ambiguities and this change was brought about by the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus in the early 18th century.

Linnaeus developed a simple system for the naming and classification of living organisms. His system uniquely specified every plant with two, or three parts. Namely:

  1. Genus
  2. Species
  3. Sub-species (form, or variety)

Since Linnaeus created his system for the classification of natural living things, and additional "fourth" cultivar field has been added to the classification of plants to help describe man made (garden) varieties called cultivars: cultivated varieties.

Genus

The Genus is the highest level and categorises plants with broadly similar characteristics. Some common names can often be the same as the genus name. As an analogy, the genus can be likened to the make of a car. An example of a genus is Agapanthus.

Species

A species is a group of plants within a genus that have a number of common distinct features. Following our previous example, this can be considered analogous to the model of a car. An example of a species of Agapanthus is africanus, meaning from Africa, which gives an indication as to the type of climate that this plant is accustomed to.

A species can potentially provide us with a lot of information about a plant such as:

Where it's From
  1. arabica - Arabia
  2. africanus - Africa
  3. chinensis - China
  4. japonica - Japan
  5. occidentalis - Western
  6. orientalis - Eastern
  7. sibirica - Siberia
Its Usual Habitat
  1. alpinus - Alpine
  2. aquatica - Water
  3. campestris - Fields
  4. montana - Mountains
  5. pratensis - Meadows
  6. sylvatica - Forests
How it Grows
  1. compressa - Compact
  2. dentata - Toothed
  3. floribunda - Multi Flowered
  4. fruticosa - Bushy
  5. ovalifolium - Oval Leaves
  6. repens - Creeper
Its Colour
  1. alba - White
  2. aureus - Gold
  3. cardinalis - Red
  4. cyaneus - Blue
  5. purpurea - Purple
  6. nigra - Black
Its Properties or Uses
  1. edulis - Edible
  2. oderata - Scented
  3. officinalis - Medical
  4. pulcher - Beautiful

Variety

A variety within a species is a naturally occurring variation of the species such as a colour variant.

Cultivar

A cultivar is a man made variation of a species, such as colour, created by artificial selective breeding. An example of a culivar of Agapanthus africanus is 'Alba', which refers to the white colour of the plant's flower.

Formatting and Typography

Standard practice dictates that italics are used for the Genus and Species, with the 'Cultivar' being given in quotation marks, but without italics, for example:

Agapanthus africanus 'Albus'

This plant is commonly referred to as the African Lily.

From its botanical name we can also deduce that the plant has a white flower and is originally from Africa, giving us another clue as to what type of conditions it might prefer.

Not so confusing after all?

For more information see:
Plant Names Explained: Botanical Terms and Their Meaning

 
 

Article written by on 27 Jun 2010 and Filed under General.