Botanical Nomenclature Guide: The Meaning Of Latin Plant Names

Botanical Nomenclature Guide: The Meaning Of Latin Plant Names

There are so many plant names to learn as it is, so why do we use Latin names too? And exactly what are Latin plant names anyway? Simple. Scientific Latin plant names are used as a means of classifying or identifying specific plants. Let’s learn more about the meaning of Latin plant names with this short but sweet botanical nomenclature guide.

What are Latin Plant Names?

Unlike its common name (of which there may be several), the Latin name for a plant is unique to each plant. Scientific Latin plant names help describe both the “genus” and “species” of plants in order to better categorize them.

The binomial (two name) system of nomenclature was developed by Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus in the mid 1700s. Grouping plants according to similarities such as leaves, flowers, and fruit, he founded a natural order and named them accordingly. The “genus” is the larger of the two groups and can be equated to the use of a last name like “Smith.” For example, genus identifies one as “Smith” and the species would be akin to an individual’s first name, like “Joe.”

Combining the two names gives us a unique term for this person’s individual name just as combing the “genus” and “species” scientific Latin plant names gives us a unique botanical nomenclature guide for each individual plant.

The difference between the two nomenclatures being, that in Latin plant names the genus is listed first and is always capitalized. The species (or specific epithet) follows the genus name in lowercase and the entire Latin plant name is italicized or underlined.

Why Do We Use Latin Plant Names?

The use of Latin plant names can be confusing to the home gardener, sometimes even intimidating. There is, however, a very good reason to use Latin plant names.

Latin words for the genus or species of a plant are descriptive terms used to describe a specific type of plant and its characteristics. Using Latin plant names helps to avert confusion caused by the often contradictory and multiple common names an individual may have.

In binomial Latin, the genus is a noun and the species is a descriptive adjective for it. Take for example, Acer is the Latin plant name (genus) for maple. Since there are many different types of maple, another name (the species) is added to for positive identification. So, when confronted with the name Acer rubrum (red maple), the gardener will know he/she is looking at a maple with vibrant red fall leaves. This is helpful as Acer rubrum remains the same regardless of whether the gardener is in Iowa or elsewhere in the world.

The Latin plant name is a description of the plant’s characteristics. Take Acer palmatum, for example. Again, ‘Acer’ means maple while the descriptive ‘palmatum’ means shaped like a hand, and it is derived from ‘platanoides,’ meaning “resembling the plane tree.” Therefore, Acer platanoides means you are looking at a maple that resembles the plane tree.

When a new strain of plant is developed, the new plant needs a third category to further describe its one-of-a-kind characteristic. This instance is when a third name (the plant’s cultivar) is added to the Latin plant name. This third name may represent the developer of the cultivar, location of origin or hybridization, or a specific unique characteristic.

Meaning of Latin Plant Names

For quick reference, this botanical nomenclature guide (via Cindy Haynes, Dept. of Horticulture) contains some of the most common meanings of Latin plant names that are found in popular garden plants.

haemaBlood red
luridusPale yellow
Origins or Habitat
amurAmur River – Asia
maritimaSea side
occidentalisWest – North America
orientalisEast – Asia
Form or Habit
Common Root Words

While it isn’t necessary to learn scientific Latin plant names, they may be of significant aid to the gardener as they contain information regarding specialized characteristics among similar plant species.


Why Plant Names Change

I always encourage gardeners to try to use the scientific name for plants rather than the common name. There is good reason for this. A common name might be used for several different plants. For instance, when someone talks about their snowball plant they could be referring to Viburnum macrocephalum, V. opulus, Hydrangea macrophylla or Ceanothus rigidis. However, I understand the frustration with using proper scientific names. They are yet another name to remember, they’re in a foreign language, they can be hard to pronounce, and, dang it, sometimes once you learn a name it changes!

Signs at RBG list the binomial Latin name first, then the common name

The scientific naming of plants, or botanical nomenclature, gives every plant a two-part name called a binomial. The first name is the genus (a more general name) and the second name is the species (a more specific name). These names are usually derived from Latin roots hence they are italicized to show their foreign origin. So, the genus and species for Colorado spruce is Picea pungens. Classifying plants in an organized way so they can be easily identified is called taxonomy. Nomenclature and taxonomy go hand in hand.

Here’s the thing. When taxonomic systems were first devised they were based on fairly superficial relationships like similar reproductive features and other easily visible traits, and didn’t take into account evolutionary ancestry. However, as DNA technology advances botanists are reclassifying plants per their genetic relationships. The good news is that although there has been a flurry of name changes recently (causing gardeners many headaches!) the nomenclature should eventually stabilize.

Do you call tomatoes Solanum lycopersicum or Lycopersicon esculentum?

Sometimes it takes a while for the literature (and gardeners!) to catch up with the name changes. Recently several members of the genus Aster were moved to the genus Symphyotrichum. Ouch! – Aster is much easier to say and remember. When a botanical name changes, its old name might still be referenced as a synonym (syn.). For instance, the New York aster might now be written as Symphyotrichum novi-belgii syn. Aster novi-belgii. It’s not necessary to list the synonymous name but it can help clear up confusion and remind gardeners of the change. In my last post I referred to tomatoes as Solanum lycopersicum syn. Lycopersicon esculentum for this reason, since some seed catalogs still use the old name.

Pronunciation is another gripe of gardeners. Names like Schizachyrium, Peltoboykinia, Hakonechloa do not easily roll off the tongue. Now here’s a little-known secret – it really doesn’t matter if you pronounce a Latin name wrong. Other gardeners will know what you are talking about anyway. Here in the Midwest most people pronounce Clematis incorrectly (it’s KLEM-a-tis, not klem-MAT-is), and I’ve been told it’s probably better if we don’t pronounce Pinus correctly. I’m often asked about the “cotton easter” shrubs along Rotary Botanical Gardens’ main parking lot, and although the pronunciation is wrong I have no problem understanding the question is about Cotoneaster (ka-TO-ne-as-ter).

There are talking dictionaries available on line to hear the correct pronunciation of words. Missouri Botanical Gardens has a very nice on-line plant finder site with a pronunciation tool:

Carl Linneaus (a.k.a. Carl von Linné), father of modern taxonomy

Our current system of binomial nomenclature was developed in the 18 th century by Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus, the “father of modern taxonomy”. Before his system was adopted there were many different ways to name plants, and this resulted in considerable confusion. Linneaus created a formal system that gave consistency throughout the entire scientific community. Although DNA technology is changing the way we view taxonomy, Linneaus’ binomial nomenclature is still proving to be a powerful communication tool for naming plants.

Photo credits: Janice Peterson and Wikimedia Commons

Janice Peterson has been on staff as a Grounds Horticulturist at RBG since 2002. She has been involved in a variety of projects including: the Thomas Jefferson Garden, the Heirloom Garden, and the Horticulture Building vegetable and perennial beds. She also helps organize our spring and fall plant sales, maintains the educational cutting display in the Parker Education Center, and leads a weekly gardening group for young adults with disabilities.

Let's Learn About Botanical Names for Plants

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First, why do we even need botanical names for plants?

Botanical names allow us to describe a plant with the absolute certainty that it won't be confused with a different plant.

You may have noticed that normal common English names do not provide that clarity. For example, "firecracker" is a confusing name, because it applies to hundreds of different plants. If I call a plant a "firecracker bush" you will not be able to know for certain which plant I am actually talking about.

But if I refer to a plant as Anisacanthus quadrifidus, then you can look that up and find the exact plant I am referencing. Therefore, botanical names are the only means of providing absolute references to specific plants.

The use of these names is called "binomial nomenclature," which is a fancy way of saying "two part names." When you take a plant's genus and species together, you have that plant's botanical name. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Why are botanical names in Latin, instead of English or some other language?

The short answer is: tradition. For long before the current system of naming living things was established, people used Latin to describe plants. Latin has been the language of science for centuries.

Having said that, however, many botanical names are actually in languages other than Latin. Rhododendron, the genus for Azaleas, is from the Greek word ῥοδόδενδρον, which means "Rose tree." Many plants are named after people. The genus Magnolia, for example, was named after French botanist Pierre Magnol. Kniphofia (the red hot poker) was named after the German botanist Johan Kniphof.

The genus Muilla is actually the word "Allium" spelled backwards.

Who is in charge of deciding that these names are?

The International Botanical Congress (the IBC) has regular meetings where they make changes to the botanical names in use. Following their meetings they publish updates to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, and this code is where we can firmly establish what plants are called.

Alright, so what is a botanical name?

It's helpful to think of a botanical name as a categorization system. All plants (indeed, all life forms) are organized into the categories: Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.

All plants are in the Plant Kingdom. From there, they get sub-categorized by phyla, class, orders, and so on. For our purposes, we really only care about the last 2 categories: the genus and species.

Imagine you have a bunch of plants that are similar but not exactly the same. Take mint plants, for example. There is a huge variety of different mints, but they are all mints. So, you can put all mints in a box called Mentha, and that is your genus. Now, within the genus Mentha, you have all the different species of mints, like Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), or Spearmint (Mentha spicata).

The genus (Mentha) tells you this is a mint. The species (the second part of the name) tells which which mint it is.

What about cultivated varieties that are the same species?

You have surely noticed that there are plants in cultivation that are clearly different kinds, yet they have the same genus and species. These cultivated varieties are distinguished using a "cultivar name." When a plant is a specific cultivar, then the botanical name will include the cultivar inside single quotes, directly after the genus and species.

There is a variety of tomato, for example, called Cherokee Purple. The genus for Tomato is Solanum, and the species name is lycopersicum, so the full botanical name for this variety of tomato is Solanum lycopersicum 'Cherokee Purple'.

I have seen plants that have only one word for their botanical name, like Rosa, Hemerocallis, or Hosta. What's up with that?

When there is a plant that is a hybrid between at least two species, the plant is often represented solely by its genus. This is most often seen in the most popular of plants, like Roses, Daylilies, Hostas and Lilies. In these cases, the botanical name can simply be the genus (in italics) followed by the cultivar name (in single quotes).

Botanical names are easy to figure out, once you know how to read them. The genus is the first word, and what remains is the species. The cultivar, if present, comes after that in single quotes.

Understanding botanical names can help us be better gardeners! When you're talking about a plant, being accurate about which plant it is sure is important. :)

Nuts and Bolts of Botanical Nomenclature

  1. The species is a subset of the genus.
  2. The genus begins with a capital letter, whereas the first letter in the specific epithet is lower-case. Both are italicized.
  3. In instances where we translate from Latin to arrive at the common name, we reverse the order of the names, putting the epithet before the genus. This is true in the case of Solanum dulcamara (see above), which translates literally as bittersweet (from dulcamara) nightshade (from Solanum). Note, however, that the common name for a plant is not always a literal translation of the Latin name. For example, the common name for Celastrus scandens (see above) is American bittersweet, but the literal translation of the Latin, in this case, has nothing to do with either "American" or "bittersweet."
  4. Sometimes in plant taxonomy, you will see a third name. In such cases, we are simply getting more specific, accounting for variation within a species. Most commonly, this third name indicates a cultivar (cultivated variety) it will appear in single quotation marks and its first letter is capitalized. But, sometimes, this third name indicates a variety (naturally occurring variety). A variety name is preceded by the abbreviation, "var." Unless the variety name is a proper noun, its first letter is not capitalized. But, like the genus name and specific epithet, the variety name is italicized.
  5. Sometimes yet another word is added after the genus name and epithet, which is neither italicized nor set off by quotation marks—the name of the person who first described the plant. These names are sometimes abbreviated. When the name is abbreviated as "L," it stands for "Linnaeus."
  6. When you see a genus name followed by the letter "x," followed, in turn, by an epithet, this is an indication that the plant is a cross between two different plant species—a "hybrid plant."

We use scientific plant names (or "botanical plant names") to avoid confusion since they are an international language of sorts. That does not mean that they, themselves are never confusing botanists sometimes decide the current plant taxonomy is "wrong" and change the name. But, by and large, the use of the binomial system described above achieves greater clarity than the use of common plant names.

To look up a particular plant on my website by botanical name, please consult my list of scientific names of plants. Do not be afraid to work with botanical nomenclature. It may seem intimidating at first, but you will soon recognize some terms that appear over and over again, establishing patterns: for example, the use of reptans in the name of a creeper.

Latin Linguistics - A Useful Tool in Horticulture

One of the most frustrating aspects for new gardeners is the use of Latin in Scientific or Botanical plant names. Believe it or not, botanical names were created by Carl von Linne to make plant names easier. Before Linnaeus (Latinized version of Linne) created the binomial (bi = two and nom = name) system, each plant had several names.

The first part of the binomial system is the Genus (always capitalized). The second part is the specific epithet (always lowercase). Together, the genus and specific epithet make up a species or name of a plant. This system is similar to an individual's name. Our last name identifies us to a particular group (family) like Romer, Flynn, or Haynes. The Genera (plural for Genus) of Acer, Quercus, and Salvia do the same for plants. Our first name identifies us specifically as James, Paula, or Cindy as do the specific epithets rubrum, alba, or splendens for plants. Put these two words together and you have the name of a specific individual (James Romer, Paula Flynn, or Cindy Haynes) or plant species (Acer rubrum, Quercus alba, or Salvia splendens). The order of placement is the only difference between the two naming systems. The species names for plants are usually italicized or underlined. However, plants take it one step farther with the addition of the cultivar, or cultivated variety. Garden salvia or Salvia splendens is available in many colors. 'Salsa Scarlet' is a red-flowered cultivar while 'Salsa White' is a white-flowered cultivar. Cultivar names are usually in quotation marks and follow the specific epithet (Salvia splendens 'Salsa White').

Why do we prefer scientific/botanical names?

Why should we bother learning the botanical names of plants when the common names seem to work fine? The best reason for not using common names when referring to plants is that they are often more confusing than the botanical name. For example, several cultivars of Acer rubrum and Acer platanoides are commonly called red maple. There is a great difference between these two species and the only way you can be assured you are referring to the same red maple is to use the botanical name.

So when you go to the local garden center and ask for red maple you could get any one of over several hundred different types of trees. But, if you ask for Acer rubrum 'Red Sunset' you will you are selecting a truly superior maple with brilliant red fall color. You can also be assured that Acer rubrum 'Red Sunset' is the same plant in Iowa, Louisiana, Great Britain, or anywhere else in the world. Whereas, who knows what red maple means in Louisiana!

Latin was used as the language for scientific names because it is considered a "dead" language. This means no new words or slang are created or changed through the years. Once you know a little Latin, plant names can tell you a great deal about the plants themselves. The genus name is usually a noun. Acer is a maple, Mentha is a mint, etc. The species name is commonly an adjective describing that member of the genus. The species name can tell you the color of the flower (rubra means red), where it originates (japonica means Japan), its form or habit (pendula means weeping), etc. Sometimes the combination of two Latin words make up a specific epithet like grandi (meaning large) and flora (meaning flower). Therefore, Magnolia grandiflora is a large flowering Magnolia.

See how simple and useful learning Latin can be! Below is the meaning of some common Latin words that can help you know more about your plants.

alba White
ater Black
aurea Chartreuse
azur Blue
caeruleus Blue
chrysus Yellow
coccineus Scarlet
ebenus Ebony
eburneus Ivory
erythro Red
ferrugineus Rusty
flava Yellow
gala Milky
haema Blood red
lacteus Milky
leuc White
lividus Blue-gray
luridus Pale yellow
luteus Yellow
nigra Black/dark
puniceus Red-purple
purpureus Purple
rosea Rose
rubra Red
sulphureus Yellow
virens Green
Origins or Habitat
alpinus Alpine
amur Amur River - Asia
canadensis Canada
chinensis China
japonica Japan
maritima Sea side
montana Mountains
occidentalis West - North America
orientalis East - Asia
sibirica Siberia
sylvestris Woodland
virginiana Virginia
Form or Habit
contorta Twisted
globosa Rounded
gracilis Graceful
maculata Spotted
magnus Large
nana Dwarf
pendula Weeping
prostrata Creeping
reptans Creeping
Common Root Words
anthos Flower
brevi Short
fili Threadlike
flora Flower
folius Foliage
grandi Large
hetero Diverse
laevis Smooth
lepto Slender
macro Large
medio Intermediate
mega Big
micro Small
mono Single
multi Many
phyllos Leaf/Foliage
platy Flat/Broad
poly Many

This article originally appeared in the July 23, 1999 issue, pp. 100-101.

No. 9: Look up what the words mean

Last but I’m sure not least, I googled a few words I was struggling to remember and came up with some surprises. For instance, ‘Glanleam’ (Luma apiculata ‘Glanleam Gold’) is a Bed and Breakfast on Valencia Island and Marlot as in Skimmia japonica ‘Magic Marlot’ has the opposite meaning to ‘Harlot’. I’ll let you look that one up yourself...

We’ve learnt the botanical Latin of fifty plants in the past six weeks. Over the next ten weeks we’ll be weaving those into assignments, practicing our pruning techniques on the plants, or discussing them in class. We’ll be adding to that list as the leaves begin to appear and we start our leaf identification of deciduous trees.

If you’re learning the botanical Latin names for fun at home, perhaps limit yourself to whatever is manageable. Unless you’re using the names regularly they’re easy to forget, so better to learn a few at a time and remember them all.

Have you any other tips that might help learners to remember the names? What works for you?

What's in a Name? The Importance of Knowing and Using Latin Names for Plants

What's in a name? Does it really matter if we know the scientific names of plants? Can't we just call them what we've called them for years? Sometimes, common names can create confusion. Latin names make it easier to communicate and exchange information, and using them can prevent costly mistakes.

When people see others using Latin names for plants on the forums, they often wonder why. Whether we call it a rose or Rosa rugosa , wouldn't it smell as sweet? Some say they don't care about the official names, they just want to grow pretty flowers. That's fine, but botanical Latin can be useful. Knowing a plant's genus and species helps you use resources like PlantFiles and lets you distinguish between plants with the same common name when you're trading or placing orders.

Snail Vine? Corkscrew Vine? Help!
For years, I saw this special vine in catalogs. The bloom looked lovely, and the scent sounded luscious. But some catalogs called it Corkscrew Vine, and others called it Snail Vine. I started hearing complaints that not everybody seemed to be receiving the same plant when they ordered this vine, despite the fact that the catalog descriptions and high prices were the same.

Then I discovered that two different plants, Vigna caracalla and Phaseolus caracalla, were each known by the same two common names, Snail Vine and Corkscrew Vine. No wonder there was confusion! V. caracalla has cream and purple blossoms and a strong, sweet fragrance. The purple blooms of P. caracalla lack fragrance. Both are great garden plants, but Vigna caracalla is usually the more expensive and sought-after one. Disappointed shoppers were getting "Corkscrew Vine," as promised, but they were not getting V. caracalla. Latin names do matter!

Latin names aren't just for the pros
When I joined Dave's Garden and started looking around the forums, I was a little intimidated by all the people who referred to plants by their Latin names. I was embarrassed that I didn't know the names myself, and I'd have to look them up in PlantFiles if wanted to follow the conversation. I began realizing that learning the Latin names myself would let me avoid a lot of confusion.

I decided the only way to learn these names was to make myself use them. When I organized all my seed packets into a binder with plastic pocket pages, I put them in alphabetical order by Latin name. I had to look up a lot of Latin names of common plants like columbines (Aquilegia vulgaria) and marigolds (Tagetes) in PlantFiles. Sometimes I'd have to look them up again to remind myself where to look for the seeds. But eventually, the scientific names stuck in my memory, and now I can recognize and use them.

Genus species ‘Cultivar'
When you look at the scientific name of a plant, what do the different words signify? The Latin name gives first the genus and then the species of the plant, sometimes followed by a cultivar name.

An example of this nomenclature is Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra ‘Summer Sun'. If you know that sunflowers belong to the genus Helianthus, you'll have an idea that a flower species named helianthoides is likely to be sunflower-like. In fact, a common name for this plant is False Sunflower.

Latin names are generally either italicized or underlined. The genus name (the first word) is capitalized and may be abbreviated (as in V. caracalla). Where applicable, subspecies may be indicated by the Latin abbreviation "var." If a specific cultivar of the plant is specified, the cultivar name is in regular type and is set off by single quotation marks.

Same name, different plant?
I often suggest that people mark seed packets with Latin names as well as common ones. With the Latin name, I know I can find all the information I need in PlantFiles. A surprising number of plants with very different heights, habitats, and growing requirements have the same common name. If you search PlantFiles for "Daisy," you'll find 649 entries!

I had a mystery swap packet labeled "Milkweed," potentially containing seeds for one of over 75 species of Asclepias. A. incarnata is hardy and likes water. A. syriaca is drought tolerant, 4-6 feet tall, and can be hard to dig out once established. A. curassavica is tropical. Some species are native prairie plants or have other special requirements. So many possibilities! If I'd known what I had, maybe I'd have been able to persuade a seed to germinate.

Communicating across borders
Although most of the members of Dave's Garden live in the United States, we have a growing international membership. Scientific names are invaluable when communicating across linguistic and cultural barriers. On a recent airline trip, I sat next to a woman from the Netherlands. We had just enough language in common to discover a mutual interest in gardening, but to our dismay many flower names just didn't translate well. If we hadn't known some Latin names, our conversation would have been very brief.

Latin is used for scientific names because it's a "dead," unchanging language. Whether you are researching 200 year old plantation records, reading a German botanical journal, or buying seeds from Thailand, the Latin name will tell you exactly what plant is being discussed.

Taxonomy - the classification of living things
Every plant has a place in a whole series of categories - from kingdom to phylum, class, subclass, order, family, and finally to genus and species. [1] A species is generally defined by reproduction: plants within the same species can cross and produce fertile offspring. Plants in the same genus are closely related, but usually can't interbreed. Within a species, named cultivars have distinctive characteristics that "come true" from one generation to the next, either from seed or by vegetative propagation.

Just do it!
You don't have to try to learn the Latin names of every plant in your garden all at once. Look up a couple of botanical names when you're sorting your seeds. When you search for information in PlantFiles, don't just skip over the family, genus, and species names at the top. After a while, the names will become familiar, and they won't seem so awkward to use. Then, you'll start to appreciate their usefulness. What's in a name? Actually, quite a lot!

I'd like to thank the following DGers for contributing the beautiful images to PlantFiles that appear above: Todd_Boland (Rosa rugosa 'Therese Bugnet'), Kniphofia (Asclepias incarnata), Justaysam (Phaseolus caracalla), and Dave (Vigna caracalla). The other photos were taken by me in my garden.

[1] For more information on plant taxonomy, see "Botanical Latin for the Plebian Reader," an article by Jeffery Goss in Countryside Magazine.

(Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 4, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

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