How Plants Get Their Names

Botanical nomenclature is the formal way of saying, ‘The scientific naming of plants’. Plant taxonomy is first used to group and classify all plants; then botanical nomenclature provides names for the results of this sorting process.

They say Latin is a dead, unspoken language, but I speak it every day at my job in horticulture. Plants have both a common name and a formal, scientific name. When you talk to your Southern cousin and she tells you she has bluebells in her yard, they could be a completely different plant than what we Midwesterners call a bluebell. Poor Arisaema triphyllum has many names: Jack-in-the-pulpit, bog onion, wild turnip, brown dragon, Indian turnip, death flower or American wake robin.

By using Latin nomenclature, I ensure that I order exactly which variety I want, especially if I’m matching existing plants. Scientists refer to this method as the binomial naming system, as all biological things have an order. Many times the Latin name reveals characteristics of the plant such as color, size, origin, and growth habit among other things.

The ‘white bleeding heart, lyre flower or lady-in-a-bath’ will be my example.

Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’ Synonym Lamprocapnos (shakes fist at botanists)

Dicentra is the first part of the name called the genus. This section groups plants that are closely related. The translation is; Di = two + centra = spurs, which describes the flower.

The next part of the name is called the specific epithet, which further describes the plant; spect = looking + abilis = able.

The last part of this name [in this case] is the variety. This describes qualities that differ from the species, and will grow true from seed. ‘alba’ =  white.

Names of cultivars are also after the specific epithat and in quotes. These do not grow true from seed and are capitalized as usually, they relate to the creator or something catchy for marketing such as, Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’ and Hosta ‘Big Daddy’.

Hybrids would be the last type of scientific name that combines the names of the two plants involved. Abelia x grandiflora or the glossy abelia, was developed by crossing Abelia chinensis and Abelia uniflora. These plants do not grow true from seed. Examples are: Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Forester‘ and Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘ Arazona Sun’.

Here’s some basic Latin to help ease you into it!

Alba = white

Aurea = golden foliage

Contorta = twisted

Elata = tall

Grandiflora = large flowers

Grandifolia = large leaves

Japonica = from Japan

Lutea = yellow

Nana = dwarf

Occidentalis = from the West

Orientalis = from the East

Pendula = weeping

Purpurea = purple

Repens = creeping

Sempervirens = evergreen

Syricta = upright

Tomentosa = downy

© The Naturarian

15 thoughts on “How Plants Get Their Names”

  1. I love the latin names for all kinds of fauna and flora, not only because they are often so descriptive, but also because they open my eyes to family relationships that otherwise might not be that obvious.

    1. You’re very right! I’m amazed how some are related. However, botanists seem to like to change things on me 😉

  2. I took two years of Latin and I have a very, very rough idea of what various formal names mean. It can be very entertaining when a plant is essentually “big weed”. 😀

    1. Ha ha! Yup.
      When I was volunteering in the Master Gardener program. Folks would want me to ID the plants they planned to kill. Why? So there’s something on their headstone? 😂🤣😂

  3. I write about nomenclature every few years or so. I compare the binomial system to the names of cars, with the genera being Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and such, and the species being (Buick for example) Electra, Skylark, Regal, Riviera and such.

      1. Thank you. It is not as effective now that most cars are designated by numbers and maybe a letter or two, and they all seem to lack any distinction. It worked back when cars were more distinct. Trying to relate to a Chysler made by Mercedes Benz with a Japanese engine just is not the same as a good old fashioned Buick Electra.

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