How to Understand the Formal, Botanical naming of Plants

They say Latin is a dead, unspoken language, but I speak it every day at my job in horticulture.  Plants have both a common name and a formal, scientific name. When you talk to your Southern cousin and she tells you she has bluebells in her yard, they could be a completely different plant than what we can grow up here, let alone what we Midwesterner’s call a bluebell. By using Latin nomenclature, I ensure that I order exactly which variety I want, especially if I’m matching existing plants. Scientists refer to this method as the binomial naming system, as all biological things have an order. Many times the Latin name reveals characteristics of the plant such as color, size, origin, and growth habit among other things.

The ‘white bleeding heart’ will be my example.

Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’

Dicentra is the first part of the name called the genus. This section groups plants that are closely related. The translation is; Di = two + centra = spurs, which describes the flower.

The next part of the name is called the specific epithet, which further describes the plant; spect = looking + abilis = able.

The last part of this name [in this case] is the variety. This describes qualities that differ from the species, and will grow true from seed. ‘alba’ =  white.

Names of cultivars are also after the specific epithat and in quotes. These do not grow true from seed and are capitalized as usually, they relate to the creator or something catchy for marketing such as, ‘Karl Forester’, ‘Alexander’, ‘Moonbeam’ and ‘Big Daddy’.

Hybrids would be the last type of scientific name that combines the names of the two plants involved. Abelia x grandiflora or the glossy abelia, was developed by crossing Abelia chinensis and Abelia uniflora. These plants do not grow true from seed.

Here’s some basic Latin to help ease you into it!

Alba = white

Aurea = golden foliage

Contorta = twisted

Elata = tall

Grandiflora = large flowers

Grandifolia = large leaves

Japonica = from Japan

Lutea = yellow

Nana = dwarf

Occidentalis = from the West

Orientalis = from the East

Pendula = weeping

Purpurea = purple

Repens = creeping

Sempervirens = evergreen

Syricta = upright

Tomentosa = downy

One thought on “How to Understand the Formal, Botanical naming of Plants

  1. Pingback: 200th Post! | Midwestern Plants

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