Plant Nomenclature: Where Do Plant Names Come From?

Have you ever wondered about the long Latin names that are used to identify plants? Why are they used? What do they mean?

Most plants have a "common" name that is easy to pronounce and remember. This can pose a problem, however, because many different plants have the same "common" name. For example, when someone speaks of a "red maple" they may be referring to the weeping Japanese maple, the upright Japanese red maple (such as "Bloodgood"), the shade tree that has red leaves during the spring, summer and fall (such as "Crimson King") or the shade tree that has green leaves during the spring and summer, but then has red leaves in the fall (such as "Red Sunset")! To avoid confusion each plant is given a scientific or botanical name.

Botanical names are made up of two words. The first word identifies the name of the genus to which the plant belongs. Similar to our last name, the genus refers to the plant's "family." The second word is the specific or species name and corresponds to our first name.

The generic (first) name is always capitalized. The species (second) name is very seldom capitalized, even when it is derived from a proper name. In literature the botanical names are always either underlined or appear in italics. For example, Pinus thunbergii is the botanical name for Japanese black pine and is known by that name throughout the world. This method of naming plants is called the binomial system of nomenclature and is in accordance with specific international codes.

Finally, the variety name indicates a unique, generally hybridized, plant within the family. For example, Acer rubrum "Red Sunset" refers to the "Red Sunset" variety of red (rubrum) maple (Acer).

Botanical names can be very helpful in revealing certain characteristics about a plant. Listed below are Latin words often used in describing plants and their meanings.

africana — from Africa
alata — winged
alba — white
albiflorus — white flowered
altissima — tallest
amabilis — lovely
aquifolium — holly leaved
argentea — silvery
australis — southern
canadensis — from Canada
coniferous — cone bearing
cordate — heart shaped
densiflorus — heavily flowered
edulis — edible
elegans — elegant, beautiful
globosa — globe-shaped
gracilis — graceful
grandiflorus — large flowered
japonica — of Japan
marginatus — with a stripe
nanus — dwarf
nigra — black
officinalis — medicinal
prostratus — lying flat
purpurea — purple
rotundifolius — round leaves
vulgaris - common

When you consider how many different plants are growing in the world, along with each year's new introductions, it is easy to understand the importance of proper plant nomenclature.

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