Many new gardeners are frustrated by the use of Latin to identify the scientific and botanical names of plants. The use of Latin was actually developed to simplify the naming of plants.  Before the present classification system, flowers were known only by their common names.  This was very confusing and can be even today

          Carl von Linne developed the binomial system to classify plants so that the same plant is known by the same name around the world. He classified plants according to physical similarities and assigned each a standard two part name, or binomial (bi=2 & nomial=name). He used Latin to name the different plants because it is considered a “dead” language and thus no new words or slang words are created. Dr. Cindy Haynes,         Department of Horticulture, at Iowa State University wrote a very good explanation of the Linne system of plant nomenclature. I have adapted that article first published in “Horticulture and Home Pest News”, Iowa State University, July 23, 1999.

          “The first part of the binomial system is the generic epithet or Genus which is always capitalized. The second part is the specific epithet which is 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 Edgar, or Jeurink or Osborne. The Genera (plural for Genus) of Acer, Quercus, and Salvia do the same for plants. Our first name identifies us specifically as George, or Gladys, or Tom 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 (George Edgar, or Gladys Jeurink, or Tom Osborne) or plant species (Acer rubrum, Quercus alba, or Salvia splendens). The order of placement is the only difference between the two naming systems.”

          “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), or where it originates (japonica means Japan), or its form or habit (pendula means weeping), etc. Sometimes the combination of two Latin words makes up a specific epithet like grandi (meaning large) and flora (meaning flower). Therefore, Magnolia grandiflora is a large flowering Magnolia. The species names for plants are usually italicized or underlined” 

          “Plants then take the naming 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 single quotation marks and follow the specific epithet (Salvia splendens 'Salsa White'). Cultivar names can be spotted by this single quote marks that surround them. Cultivars are often named for people or places, or colors, but a few plant breeders follow a theme like songbirds or Shakespeare. Other breeders go for poetic names or fanciful things.”

          You may ask, why should we bother learning the botanical names of plants? The main reason is that common names are used for many plants, and can be more confusing than using the scientific or botanical name. For example, if your friend has a “Red Maple” tree and you go to a garden center and just ask for a “Red Maple”, you may get a tree that is quite different from the one you really want. Several cultivars of Acer rubrum and Acer platanoides are commonly called “Red Maple”. If you ask for Acer rubrum 'Red Sunset' you will be selecting a truly superior Maple with brilliant red fall color. The only way to get the tree you want is to refer to the scientific name.

          I have “Bluebells” (Ruellia squarrosa) in my pond. If I go to the garden center and just ask for Blue Bells they will probably sell me Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia pulmonarioides) which will not work as a bog plant in my pond. My wife likes the Virginia Bluebells in her garden and they are pretty. But I had better be specific or I will get the wrong plant.

          Sometimes, when you use the scientific or botanical name, others may think you are trying to show off.  When I use them I am trying to be accurate.  In these articles we try to communicate so that you can go to the garden center, the catalog, or the internet and get the exact plant you want. We don’t do it to confuse you. In the same way, in these articles I try to use the name of the active ingredient that is listed on the label of a pesticide along with a brand name.  That way you can get what you want regardless of which brand you choose or what store you go to.

          Many of you, like me, have not taken a class in Latin. With frequent use and repetition, however, the names do eventually sink in. If you keep the tag that comes with your new plant, or tree, or shrub, or the package of seeds, you can learn the scientific name and be able to get exactly the same plant or seed next year, even if you are in a garden center in Vermont, or Texas, or Oregon, or Nebraska. Also, if you order by catalog, or the internet using the scientific name, you will be assured of getting the seeds or plant you really want. If you see a plant listed or recommended in the paper or magazine, by using the scientific name you can go to any garden center or reference book and find out about that plant.

          In Part #2 I will print the meaning of some common Latin words that can help you know more about your plants, trees, and shrubs. This list of Latin names, are actual quotes from the Iowa State article.

 For more information see:

Dictionary of Plant Names: The pronunciation, derivation, and meaning of botanical names and their common-name equivalents by Allen J. Coombes, Timber Press, Inc.

Gardener's Latin by Bill Neal, Algonquin Books.

How Plants Get Their Names by L.H. Bailey, Dover Publications.

Copyright 2011