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.
- The Genus name is equivalent to a person’s last name (or family name). The Genus describes the plant in a GENeral way.
- 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)
Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers”
Commonly known as Ruby Slippers Hydrangea
An oak-leaved hydrangea
Commonly known as Pale Purple Coneflower
A coneflower with pale purple flowers
Commonly known as Purple Coneflower
A coneflower with deeper purple flowers
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!
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
|campanulate||like a bell|
|flora plena||double flowers|
Descriptive of Place of Origin
|campestris||of the fields|
|canadensis||from North America|
|montana||from the mountains|
|rupestris||of the hills/cliffs|
|sylvestris||of the woods|
Descriptive of Season of Bloom
|praecox||of spring, early|
Descriptive of Leaf Form/Color/Texture
|digitata||5 lobed leaves|
|lanceolate||lance shaped leaves|
Descriptive of Distinctive Characteristic
Descriptive of Habit or Form