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
Drumsticks     Craspedia globosa
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)

1. Genus:
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.

Aroma/Scents (smell)

arom odor
dulce sweet
fragrans fragrant
fragrantissima very fragrant
mosch musk odor
odorata scented

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 .
ater black
Atro dark
aurantiaca orange
aureus golden
aure, aurea, aureum gold, Golden (e.g. Bidens aurea)
azurea, azureus azure, sky blue
caesius blue gray
caerula deep blue
candidus pure white, shiny
canus ashy gray, hoary
carneus flesh colored
citrinus yellow
coeruleus dark blue
coccineus scarlet
concolor one color
croceus yellow
cruentus bloody
discolor two or separate colors
flava, flavum, flavus yellow, Yellow/green (e.g. Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea')
glaucus covered with gray bloom
griseum gray
incanus gray, hoary
lutea, luteus reddish yellow
miniata of a reddish color
nigra black
purpurea, purpureus purple
rosea rose-colored
rubens, ruber red, ruddy
rubra, rubrum red
rufus ruddy
sanguinea blood-red
viridis green


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')

Flower types

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

altus tall
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')
Contortus twisted
erecta Upright (e.g. Tagetes erecta)
elata tall
elegans elegant, slender, willowy
recta, erecta upright, erect
fastigiata Having erect and almost parallell branches (e.g. Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’).
fruticosa shrublike
grand, grandi big
horizontalis Flat (e.g. Cotoneaster horizontalis)
humilis low-growing
nana dwarf, miniature
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
pumilia low-growing, dwarf
pyramidalis Growing in a pyramid or conical shape (e.g. Juniperus chinensis ‘Pyramidalis’)
repens, reptans creeping, (e.g. Mahonia repens)
scandens climbing

Leaf Shape and Form

acerifolius maplelike leaves
abr delicate leaved
angustifolius narrow leaves
aquifolius spiney leaves
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)
ilicifolius hollylike leaves
lanceolata lance-shaped
latifolia Broad-leaved (e.g. Kalmia latifolia)
lauriflolius laurel-like leaves
longifolia long-leaved
macrophylla large-leaved
microphylla small-leaved
parvifolia small leaves
palmate, palmatum hand-shaped leaves
populifolius poplarlike leaves
rotundifolia round-leaved
salicifolius willowlike leaves


aethiopium Africa
alpin alpine regions
andi Andes
antill West Indies
australis southern
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
chilensis from Chile
chinensis from China
europa from Europe
hortensis of the garden
insularis of the island
japonica, japonicum from Japan
littoralis of the seashore
virginiana from Virginia

Plant Peculiarities

acaulis stemless
amabile, amabilis beautiful
blanda pleasent
communis common
contorta contorted growth habit
cordata heart-shaped
crispa finely waved, curled
florida, floridus flowering
gracilis graceful
grandiflora large-flowered

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.