What's in a Plant's Name?
Common Plant Names
Everybody uses local or common plant names on a daily basis, whether for fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, garden plants or wild plants. The problem with using common names is that ‘local names or the common name’ varies often from place to place.
This becomes a problem when communicating with people from different parts of the world. Also, Common names given to plants, depending on regions are easier to remember but cause much confusion when used one common name is used to refer to several different plants or when a single plant seem to have several common names.
As a solution to avoid such confusions and many other reasons plants, like any other living organism, are given botanical names based on an internationally accepted system for naming each unique and distinct plant, whether natural or cultivated. This provides people world-wide, a way to refer to a distinctly identified and classified plant using the same accepted name.
Botanical Plant Names
Carl Linnaeus standardized plant naming in the 18th century, brought order into botanical nomenclature by means of a Latin Binomial System, in which the first name represented genus, and the second, species. He became known as the Father of Taxonomy. Under this system precise naming of plant is done to identifying them accurately and every plant given it's own unmistakable botanical name and identity, with certain exceptions.
Sometimes under the Binomial System plant names are referred to as the "scientific name" or the "Latin name". This is a misnomer as these names are neither scientific nor always based in Latin, but should be properly referred to as the botanic or botanical name (although it is usually written in a Latin form).
This system for classifying and communicating about plants, provides a common foundation for sharing identification and information across disciplines, cultures, and broad geographic areas. Botanical names provide a genealogical framework designating family, genus, and species that allows a quick reference for relationships of form, habit, and healing attributes, among other things.
The rules of naming are governed by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN or “Botanical Code” ) and the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP or “Cultivated Plant Code”).
Overall responsibility for the Botanical Code is vested in the International Union of Biological
Sciences (IUBS), though this is delegated to the International Commission for Botanical Nomenclature. The Cultivated Plant Code is the responsibility of a different IUBS commission, the International Commission for the Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants. The ICBN and ICNCP is in turn updated from time to time by a world-wide group of botanists.
Understanding Botanical Names
When one makes a visit to the world of plants, a basic understanding of botanical names makes one more comfortable in his understanding of the plants.
|Common Name||Botanical Name|
|Creeping Zinnia||Sanvitalia procumbens|
The botanical names consist of two parts, "Genus" first name with a capitalized first letter, and a "species" epithet second name (lower case), both usually italicized. Together they make up the species name. Informally, the species epithet (in this case procumbens) is sometimes referred to as the species name; this is technically incorrect and has to be avoided when precision is required.
Genus name (e.g. Salvia) + Species epithet (e.g. viridis)
? Species name (Salvia viridis)
A genus refers to a group of species of plants that share certain structural characteristics as determined by botanical study. The genus name, a noun, may come from mythology, literature, or other sources which refer to something the plant resembles.
2. Species epithet:
The species, an adjective, often refers to a place, the plant's characteristics/appearance, or the name of the person credited with discovering it. Species are botanically classified by analysis of the flower parts and characteristics for flowering plants, and by the seed/cone for coniferous and other non-flowering plants. This is why plants with distinctively different foliage or other characteristics can be classified as the same species. Species is abbreviated sp. or spp.
Here is a list of few species epithet and what they mean.
To know the meanings of all click here to go to Glossary ? Plant Names.
Colors of Flowers or Foliage
|alba, albi, albus||white, e.g. Argemone albiflora|
|arg, argenteus||silvery For example, Thuja plicata 'Atrovirens', which has dark green leaves .|
|aure, aurea, aureum||gold, Golden (e.g. Bidens aurea)|
|azurea, azureus||azure, sky blue|
|candidus||pure white, shiny|
|canus||ashy gray, hoary|
|discolor||two or separate colors|
|flava, flavum, flavus||yellow, Yellow/green (e.g. Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea')|
|glaucus||covered with gray bloom|
|lutea, luteus||reddish yellow|
|miniata||of a reddish color|
|rubens, ruber||red, ruddy|
|compacta||compact (e.g. Achillea compacta)|
|gigantea||Big (e.g. Stipa gigantea).|
|pumila||Dwarf (e.g. Ficus pumila or dwarf fig).|
|pygmaea||Small (e.g. Nymphaea pygmaea Rubra or water lily ‘Red Pygmy')|
|centifolia||100 leaves/petals (e.g. Rosa centifolia)|
|nudiflorum||Literally ‘naked flowered’ meaning that the plant flowers when there are no leaves on the plant (e.g. Jasminum nudiflorum)|
|regale||Magnificent (e.g. Lilium regale or regal lily)|
|spectabilis||Showy (e.g. Dicentra spectabilis).|
|aquatica||Growing in or near water (e.g. Mentha aquatica)|
|arenarius||Sandy (e.g. Dianthus arenarius, or sand pink)|
|littoralis||Near the sea shore (e.g. Griselinia littoralis)|
|maritima||Near the sea (e.g. Armeria maritima or sea thrift)|
|montana||Mountain (e.g. Clematis montana)|
|palustris||Marshy (e.g. Caltha palustris or marsh marigold)|
|rupestris||Growing amongst rocks (e.g. Umbilicus rupestris or navelwort)|
|riparius||of river banks|
How it grows
|arborescens, Arboreum||treelike (e.g. Aeonium arboreum)|
|arundinacea||Reed-like (e.g. Stipa arundinacea)|
|biennial||Flowers in second year and generally dies after flowering (e.g. Digitalis purpurea, or foxglove)|
|columnaris||Upright habit (e.g. Chamaecyparis columnaris)|
|compacta||Compact (e.g. Ilex glabra 'Compacta')|
|erecta||Upright (e.g. Tagetes erecta)|
|elegans||elegant, slender, willowy|
|recta, erecta||upright, erect|
|fastigiata||Having erect and almost parallell branches (e.g. Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’).|
|horizontalis||Flat (e.g. Cotoneaster horizontalis)|
|pendula||drooping, pendulous, or weeping (e.g. Betual pendula or weeping birch)|
|procumbens||Lying down or scrambling (e.g. Fuchsia procumbens)|
|prostrat, prostratum, procumbens||prostrate|
|pyramidalis||Growing in a pyramid or conical shape (e.g. Juniperus chinensis ‘Pyramidalis’)|
|repens, reptans||creeping, (e.g. Mahonia repens)|
Leaf Shape and Form
|buxifolius||leaves like boxwood|
|crispum/crispa||Curly (Petroselinum crispum or curly leaved parsely)|
|elliptica||Ellipse shaped leaved (e.g. Garrya elliptica)|
|glabrum||Smooth, hairless (e.g. Acer glabrum)|
|hederifolium||Ivy-leaved (e.g. Cyclamen hederifolium)|
|hirta||Hairy (e.g. Rudbeckia hirta)|
|latifolia||Broad-leaved (e.g. Kalmia latifolia)|
|palmate, palmatum||hand-shaped leaves|
|barbadensis||native to Barbados|
|campestris||of the field or plains|
|canadensis||from Canada or America|
|canariensis||from the Canary Islands|
|capensis||from the Cape of Good Hope|
|hortensis||of the garden|
|insularis||of the island|
|japonica, japonicum||from Japan|
|littoralis||of the seashore|
|contorta||contorted growth habit|
|crispa||finely waved, curled|
References: 1. Bailey, L. H., "How Plants Get Their Names," Dover Publications, 1963.
2. Baumgardt, John Philip, "How to Identify Flowering Plant Families", Timber Press
3. Stearn, W. T., "Botanical Latin, History, Grammar, Syntax, Terminology and Vocabulary," 4th Edition, 1995, Timber Press.
4. Coombes, Allen J., "The Dictionary of Plant Names", Timber Press.
5. Baumgardt, John Philip, "How to Identify Flowering Plant Families", Timber Press.
6. Kvaalen, R., "Help for the Binomially Challenged," in "The American Gardener," Publication of the AHS, Vol. 75, No. 3, May/June 1996, pp. 48-49.
7. Porter, C. L., "Taxonomy of Flowering Plants," W. H. Freeman and Co, 1959.
8. Moldenke, Harold N. "A Brief Course in Elementary Systematic Botany for Gardeners," 1947 s 130 This hard-to-find volume is well worth the search; it is crammed full of information not found in the other references.
9. Zimmer, G. F., "A Popular Dictionary of Botanical Names and Terms with their English Equivalents"; edition 2, 1932.