What’s in a Plant Name?

Published On: January 8th, 2020

Gardeners may know a plant by a variety of names, but many don’t know what’s in a plant’s name. The most familiar to many gardeners is probably the “common name”. This is the everyday name that many use to refer to a particular garden plant. However, these can vary from region to region, and even from person to person, which can lead to confusion about exactly which plant is being referred to. On the other hand, each plant has only one “botanical” or “scientific” name. For this reason, professional horticulturists prefer to call a plant by its proper botanical name to eliminate any doubt about exactly what plant they are referring to.

Botanical names are based on binomial (“two names”) nomenclature, which means that each plant name has two parts: Genus and species.

  1. The Genus name is equivalent to a person’s last name (or family name). The Genus describes the plant in a GENeral way.
  2. The species is equivalent to a person’s first (or given) name. The species name describes the plant in a SPECific way.

The Genus name is always capitalized while the species name is written in lower case letters, as shown:

Genus species (Common Name)
Capitalize lower case (in parentheses or quotes)

what's in a plant name binomial nomenclature hydrangea quercifolia ruby slippers oak leaf

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers”
Commonly known as Ruby Slippers Hydrangea
An oak-leaved hydrangea

what's in a plant name binomial nomenclature echinacea pallida pale purple purpurea coneflower

Echinacea pallida
Commonly known as Pale Purple Coneflower
A coneflower with pale purple flowers

Echinacea purpurea
Commonly known as Purple Coneflower
A coneflower with deeper purple flowers

Binomial Nomenclature

Binomial nomenclature was developed in the 17th century by a Swedish Botanist named Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus based his naming system on the Latin language, as that was a universal language understood by most educated people of the time. Many of the Latin words used in naming plants are descriptive. As a result, simply knowing the botanical name of a plant may provide you with quite a bit of information about the plant, including such things as its flower size and color, country of origin, preferred growing conditions, and plant habit!

what's in a plant name binomial nomenclature brunnera macrophylla jack frost

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
Commonly known as Jack Frost Brunnera
A brunnera with large leaves

The Species Names of Plants

For this article, I am going to concentrate on the species names, the second part of the two-part name. The species name is often descriptive and can provide important information about the plant:

Descriptive of Flower Color/Form/Size

alba white
aurea golden, yellow
azurea blue
caerulea blue
campanulate like a bell
chrysantha yellow
coccinea red
densiflora dense-flowered
flava yellow
flora plena double flowers
grandiflora large flowers
longiflora long flowers
lutea yellow
macrantha large flowers
micrantha small flowers
multiflora many flowers
pallida pale
parviflora small flowers
purpurea deep pink/purple
rosea rose pink
rubra red
sanguinea blood red
spicata spiked
stellate starry
sulphureum yellow
umbellate umbel flowers

Descriptive of Place of Origin

campestris of the fields
canadensis from North America
chinensis from China
japonica from Japan
montana from the mountains
palustris from marshes
rupestris of the hills/cliffs
saxatilis of rocks
siberica from Siberia
sylvestris of the woods

Descriptive of Season of Bloom

autumnalis of autumn
praecox of spring, early
vernalis of spring

Descriptive of Leaf Form/Color/Texture

angustifolia narrow-leaved
argentea silvery
digitata 5 lobed leaves
lanceolate lance shaped leaves
latifolia wide leaves
longifolia long leaves
macrophylla large leaves
maculata spotted
microphylla small leaves
millefolia many leaves
parvifolia small leaves
pinnata pinnate leaves
polyphylla many leaves
quercifolia oak-leaved
rotundifolia round leaves
tenuifolia thin/narrow leaves
tomentosa fuzzy leaves
trifoliata three leaves
villosa hairy
viridis green
vitifolia grape-like leaves

Descriptive of Distinctive Characteristic

esculenta edible
foetida unpleasant smell
macrorrhizum large roots
perennis perennial
sativa cultivated
somniferum sleep inducing
vulgaris common

Descriptive of Habit or Form

caespitosa dense
compacta compact
decidua deciduous
glabra smooth
humilis short
nana small
pendula hanging/pendant
pumila small
pygmaea small
scandens climbing
spinosa spiny