Common Plant Names:
For thousands of years people have given names to their local plants as an aid in identification. The common names were usually based on local conditions, language, plant use, general appearance, and other subjective criteria, and often only recognized in the immediate area where they were originally coined. As a result, the use of common names to identify plants can create a great deal of confusion.
Scientific Plant Names:
To prevent confusion over common names, and to identify previously unnamed or newly-discovered species, the binomial system of names was created for identifying plants and animals. The binomial system is used to create a unique "scientific name" for each species, a name that is the same for all locations and persons and identifies a single, specific organism.
The binomial system uses each plant's genus and species names to construct the unique scientific name for that individual plant. An example of a binomial scientific name is Acer rubrum, a plant commonly called Red Maple.
The first part of the scientific name is the name of the genus to which the plant belongs. A genus is a group of closely-related plant species sharing similar, but not identical, traits. For example, Acer is the official name of the Maple genus.
The second part of the scientific name is the species name, also called the specific epithet. All plants which are fundamentally alike are part of the same species. In our Red Maple example, rubrum is the species name. Often species names are derived from descriptive terms; "rubrum" is Latin for red.
The scientific name not only uniquely describes a specific plant species, but it aids in understanding how different plant species are related. Acer rubrum (Red Maple) is a different plant than Acer circinatum (Vine Maple), but both are members of the Acer, or Maple, genus.There are four common ways that scientific names are written:
Variations on the Scientific Name:
While reading plant literature or browsing nursery catalogs, one may come across some variations in plant scientific names. These are often seen when talking about varieties, hybrids, and cultivars.
Plant varieties are members of the same plant species that have a specific set of characteristics that can usually be passed on to the next generation through natural reproduction. A variety is a subordinate group, or subset, of a specific species.
In horticultural literature, a variety is indicated by the "var." abbreviation. For example, the scientific name for honeylocust is Gleditsia triacanthos, where the scientific name for the thornless variety of honeylocust is Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis.
Hybrids are a cross between different species. The parent plants are usually within the same genus. (There are special rules for naming naturally-occurring hybrids of indeterminate parentage, and those hybrids which are crosses between plants in different genera.)
The multiplication sign "x" is used to indicate that the plant is a hybrid, with the multiplication sign placed between the common parent genus name and the hybrid's unique species name. Fragaria x ananassa is the scientific name for commercial strawberries, a cross between Fragaria chiloensis and F. virginiana.
The word cultivar is an abbreviation of the term "cultivated variety". Cultivars are plants of a single species which have been selectively bred for a specific characteristic, such as greater yield, larger blooms, color variation, more compact growth, or the like. Many cultivars are propagated asexually so that the desirable characteristics are not lost in future generations. Bear in mind that many cultivars are either patented or trademarked, and can not be propagated or sold without permission.
The cultivar name is written in plain text (not italicized) within single quotation marks, and is found behind the scientific name of the source species. For example,Veronica umbrosa 'Georgia Blue' is the scientific name of the Georgia Blue cultivar of the creeping groundcover Veronica umbrosa.
Naming and Labeling Your Plants. WSU Extension. Suggestions on how to name and label your garden plants.
Scientific Plant Names. Oregon State University. Discusses scientific plant names.
Dictionary of Common Names. The Plant Press. A free dictionary that lists over 30,000 English language pairs for common and botanical plant names.
Plant Names. Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. Discusses scientific plant names and how they are derived.
International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (Saint Louis Code, 1999). International Botanical Congress. The electronic version of the rules that govern scientific naming in botany, including phycology and mycology.
Pronunciation Guide For Plants. Fine Gardening. A pronunciation guide for the Latin names of selected plants. The user is able to listen to the Latin pronunciation as well as to read it.
Plant Pronunciation Guide. Rainy Side Gardeners. A guide to help you pronounce botanical names.