What’s In A Name?
Understanding and decoding plant names
Plant names, or nomenclature, and Botanical Latin confound new gardeners. That’s not hard to believe: the system is over 250 years old and is based on a language we hear very little of today – Latin (or Latinised words from other languages, like Greek). You may be tempted to avoid learning this convoluted structure by using common names or giving your plants pet names (after all, they are a part of the family). Unfortunately, you could face a few problems if you go this route.
Firstly, the common names of plants are not universal, and some may have multiple common names. A bluebell in Scotland is not the same as a bluebell in England. So if you’re looking to discuss a plant with your pen pal on another continent, botanical Latin is the only way to do it without causing confusion.
Secondly, garden centres and books normally describe a plant by its Latin name. Searching for a plant by its common name will potentially give you the wrong result, or no result at all.
Finally, botanical names can provide useful clues to the plant’s characteristics, which assist in identification or maintenance, and these clues can only be understood when you understand the language. Along with these benefits, it’s also fun to flaunt your botanical Latin at garden parties to impress your unapproving in-laws. ‘I ate the fruit of Musa acuminata yesterday’ sounds far fancier than ‘I ate a banana’.
For this stress-inducing, mysterious naming system, we have Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus to thank. There were names for plants before he arrived on the scene, as early humans needed a way to distinguish plants that were toxic from those that could be eaten, and so on. These names were passed down through generations until the age of printed books, by which time Latin was the international language of scholars. The original Latin names were short descriptions of the plants that identified the species. However, due to the volume of plants he was dealing with, Carl Linnaeus wanted a simplified universal system to use in his book Species Plantarum.
Thus, binomial nomenclature was born (technically he wasn’t the first to use this system, but was the first to apply it consistently to the plant kingdom and later to the animal kingdom, giving us the name Homo sapiens). In binomial structure, the first name (always written in italics with a capital letter) refers to the genus, and the second name (italics and lower case) refers to the specific epithet. There is a hierarchy of divisions above that, like the kingdom, division, class or family, but to avoid complicating already complex matters we’re going to leave those classifications out.
Some plants have a subspecies, indicated by the prefix ‘subsp.’ before a Latin name, or the variety indicated by the prefix ‘var.’. Hybrids are recognised by an ‘x’ between the genus and specific epithet, for example Citrus maxima and Citrus reticulata form the hybrid Citrus x aurantium. The names of cultivars appear after the Latin botanical name, enclosed in quotation marks and not written in italics to distinguish the name from the cultivar epithet.
With the technicalities out of the way, how do you begin to understand what these names mean? We can start by learning some basic Latin. While it’s difficult (near impossible) to learn every single plant name, there are commonalities in the naming system that you can learn to identify many plants at a time, rather than learning the names of each one by heart as you come across them. Parts of the botanical names may refer to colour, plant parts, descriptors, the place of origin, native habitats or the person who ‘discovered’ the plant. Learning a few of these combinations will help you identify a world of plants you didn’t even know existed.
A quick note about Latin naming rules Every noun has a gender, denoted by the ending of the word. An adjective to describe a masculine noun will end in ‘-us’, a feminine noun in ‘-a’, and a neutral noun in ‘-um’. Don’t let this confuse you: the root meaning of the word remains the same.
Referring to colour
|Purpur-||Purple||Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’|
Referring to parts of the plant
Referring to descriptors
Referring to place of origin
|Tartar-||Central Asia||Acer tataricum|
Referring to native habitats
|Aquaticus-||Growing in water||Rumex aquaticus|
|Saxatilis-||Living around rocks||Aurinia saxatilis|
|Arenarius-||From sand||Encephalartos arenarius|
|Sylvaticus-||Growing in woodlands||Croton sylvaticus|
|Maritima-||From the seaside||Armeria maritima|
Common root words
Referring to seasons
Referring to fragrance
|Inodorus-||No fragrance||Philadelphus inodorus|
Put your knowledge to the test
Read each of the plant names and try to pick out the root words. This will give you clues about the characteristics of the plant. Cover the explanations while you figure them out – no cheating.
Buxus sempervirens ‘Buxus’ meaning box, ‘sempervirens’ meaning evergreen. Commonly known as the common box or boxwood, this plant is named for its boxy appearance (used as a hedge) and its evergreen characteristic.
Clematis terniflora ‘Clematis’ from the Greek word ‘cleama’, meaning a shoot, ‘terniflora’ meaning flowers in threes. Commonly known as sweet-autumn clematis. The ‘shoot’ is a climbing, slender stem, with flowers appearing in multiples of three.
Cotoneaster horizontalis ‘Cotone’ meaning quince, ‘-aster’ meaning resembling, and ‘horizontalis’ meaning flat on the ground. Commonly known as rockspray cotoneaster, this is a groundcover plant that resembles the quince.
Digitalis purpurea ‘Digitalis’ meaning finger, ‘purpurea’ meaning purple. Commonly known as the common foxglove. The Latin name translates to purple finger, a reference to the shape of the flowers.
Galium odoratum ‘Galium’ from the Greek word for milk, ‘odoratum’ meaning fragrant. Commonly known as woodruff. The reference to milk comes from another plant in the genus, Galium verum, that was used to curdle milk when making cheese.
Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Hydro’ meaning water, ‘-aggeion’ from Greek meaning vessel, ‘querci’ from the Latin name for oak quercus, ‘folia’ meaning leaf. Commonly known as oak-leaf hydrangea. Named for leaves that resemble the leaves of an oak tree.
Lobularia maritima ‘Lobularia’ meaning small pod, ‘maritima’ referring to the sea. Commonly known as sweet alyssum. Named after the small seedpods and coastal habitat.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Paeonia’ from Greek ‘Paean’ (a student of the Greek god of medicine), ‘lacti’ meaning milky, ‘flora’ meaning flowers. Commonly known as Chinese peony. Named for its milky-white flowers.
Learning the names is difficult, but pronouncing them is next level. It’s the pronunciation (more specifically, the fear of mispronunciation and ridicule) that is hard to overcome when learning plant names. The simple answer for next-generation gardeners is that there isn’t really any ‘right’ pronunciation. The emphasis on certain syllables is based on Latin, but gardeners forget that ‘Botanical’ Latin and ‘Latin’ Latin are not the same thing.
Botanical Latin is made up of Latin, but also other sources like Ancient Greek that don’t follow the original language’s pronunciation rules. Most gardeners will know what you are talking about, even when you pronounce a plant differently than they do. If they feel the need to correct you (in the classic tone that snobby gardeners have perfected), you may issue a polite reminder that Botanical Latin is not a spoken language, it is a written one. How you pronounce a plant name does not matter; it’s how you spell it that makes all the difference. As much as these binomial names try to be universal, botanical names are not set in stone and changes occur frequently.
Plants may be originally misidentified, or botanists may make new discoveries that prompt a name change. For example, the humble apple has gone through a whirlwind of official botanical names: Malus communis, Malus domestica, Malus sylvestris, Malus pumila and Pyrus malus. There is also a question of bias in botanical names. Plant nomenclature leans heavily towards the European. Many plants are named after the people who ‘discovered’ them during the colonial period, ignoring the native people that had names for the same plants years before.
Women are also underrepresented (plants ending in -ii are named after men, and -ae after women). Modern botanists are taking representation into consideration, focusing on local names or descriptive Latin names in new plant naming. While the system devised by Linnaeus centuries ago is still the framework for plant naming, it is malleable and continues to evolve as botany does.
This series is based on the book The Next-Generation Gardener by Madison Moulton, available on Amazon.