Plant Names Demystified
Intimidated by botanical plant names? They're easier to understand than you might think. Our team walks through all you need to know, so you can confidently talk plant names.
The Value of Botanical Names
Botanical names -- unlike common names -- are the standardized names of plants accepted by scientists no matter what languages they speak or where they are in the world. They are chosen by the first person to formally describe a species in a scientific article, and they can be updated over time if scientists learn new information.
Common names on the other hand vary by language, culture and region. They’re familiar but also can be confusing. Here at the Ranch, customers might innocently ask: “Where are the daisies?” Then, we’ll prompt: Do you mean the perennial white Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum), the colorful Gerbera daisies (Gerbera jamesonii), the annual African daisies (Osteospermum) or maybe the daisy-like ice plants (Delosperma)? We love helping customers learn plants’ Latin names, so they know exactly what they’re shopping for.
History of Plant Naming
Three centuries ago, when early botanists traveled the world studying plants, they struggled to come up with a uniform way to classify the plants and animals they found in nature. They were coming up with cumbersome, crazy-long names. In 1735, Carl Linnaeus introduced his own more simplified approach that became a blueprint for scientists worldwide to follow. His binomial Latin system identifies plant species first with a generic name (genus) then a second more specific name (species). You’ll find they’re written in italics with the genus name capitalized but not the species epithet.
Elements of a Plant Name
This two-part naming system, while not perfect, endures today. The names reveal clues to how plants are related to each other. For newbies, it’s sometimes helpful to use the parallel of our own personal names where the genus is like our family name and the specific epithet is like our birth name. For example, Acer rubrum is a certain type of maple (Acer) that has red (rubrum) leaves. Other maple species will share the same genus (Acer) but will have a different species epithet. Beyond characteristics like color, plants may be named for people (Acer davidii) or places (Acer japonicum) where they were found.
Types of Subgroups
Plants are even further broken down within a species.
- Variety (var.) refers to a variation within a plant species that develops naturally in the environment. One example is Acer rubrum var. trilobum (Trident maple).
- Cultivars occur by humans selecting plants to breed with each other. For example, Acer saccharum ‘Autumn Splendor’ is a popular sugar maple cultivar.
- Hybrid (x) is a cross between two or more species. Hybrids can occur in nature or with human intervention. Acer × freemanii, (Freeman's maple) is a naturally occurring hybrid between Acer rubrum and Acer saccharinum with a red maple’s strong branches and a silver maple’s speedy growth.
Just when you think you’ve got binomial nomenclature all figured out, plant names will change. Modern taxonomists meet periodically to determine whether official names and classifications need to be changed based on new evidence like DNA sequences that disprove genetic relationships. Some of the more recent changes include the renaming of many native asters as Symphyotrichum and the reclassifying of Sanseveria as Dracaena.
Plant ID Resources
Overwhelmed? Don’t sweat. Linnaeus would have loved today’s tech tools that make plant ID easy peasy. Use the camera app on an iPhone or the Google Lens on an android phone to tap on a plant image and find its name. Apps like iNaturalist further elevate plant identification allowing you to load findings to a citizen science database to track plants and wildlife globally. Want to dive even deeper? Check out the The Plant List, an online working list of all plant species assembled by the world’s top botanical institutions. And if you need help speaking Latin, check out Fine Gardening magazine’s pronunciation guide with phonetic spellings and audio clips of hundreds of plant names.