They Are Used and Why You Should Learn to Use Them.
Whether you are a backyard gardener, a nursery professional, or a florist,
eventually you will have to deal with plant names. Most often the name you are familiar
with is the common name. Right after that you will often see an alternate name
referred to as the "scientific name" or the "Latin name". This
is a misnomer as these names are neither scientific nor Latin, but should be properly
referred to as the botanic or botanical name.
Botanical names have the distinct
advantage of referring to one and only one plant, with certain exceptions. The use
of these names makes communication between widely scattered gardeners and plants-men more
precise. Since the internet has made the world smaller, it is important that we all
refer to the same plant by the same name if our discussions are to have any meaning.
If you point out a mint plant to a fellow gardener, there is understanding. If you
ask me why your mint plants have little holes in them, I can surmise that snails are
eating them, but I have no idea what plant you are growing since there are many genera of
Genera is the plural of genus, and genus is one of the components of a plant
name. The binomial (two name) system of naming all organisms on the planet groups them
into various kingdoms, divisions, orders, families, and genera. So, the genus is the
basic grouping of similarity or relationship between organisms. It is at this level
that we want to be more specific, and that is done by adding another word called the
"specific epithet." The combination of genus and specific epithet into a single
phrase called the "species" is the basic component of botanical nomenclature.
There are finer divisions such as cultivars, variety, and subspecies describing
minor variations, but "species" is the level at which gardeners and plants-men
Genus is the name given to a group of organisms whose physical characteristics are
permanent, similar, and largely confined to that group. In Latin, it is a naming
noun derived in part from medieval Latin, classical Latin, and Latinized versions of words
in other languages, principally Greek. This is why these words may often seem
foreign to you.
Solanum, for example, is a Latin word for a group of plants including herbs,
shrubs, trees, and vines. There are 1400 species in this group and all of the
plants in this group are slightly to heavily toxic, clammy or hairy plants
with star or bell-shaped flowers with five lobes whose fruit is always a berry.
At the other extreme, is the genus Nicandra consisting of a single species.
It is not a Solanum because it shares only the flower structure, but none of the
other characteristics. Nicandra shares characteristics with other genera, like Physalis,
but is otherwise unique, and thus deserving of its own name. By the way, Nicandra
was named after the Greek botanist, Nikander of Colophon (c. 150AD).
Thus, you can see that a genus may get its name in honor of a person or it may get
its name from its origins, i.e. what natives called it where it was discovered.
Typically, the name comes from one or more of the most prominent characteristics
that define the group. Helipterum, for example, comes from the Greek (helios=sun)
and (pteron=wing). Because the 26 letters of the English language are so confining a
number of generic names are simple anagrams of existing genera yielding names such as
Sibara, Norysca, Ubochea, and Zacateza. A few are anagrams of geographic places such
as Lobivia and Jacaima.
Now you should be able to recognize that Genus, for all practical purposes, is just a
name and may well be subject to change. For example, Chrysanthemum members were
recently split off to join other groups, such as Dendranthema, Leucanthemum, and
Tanacetum. Those that went to Dendranthema are now on their way back to Chrysanthemum.
Taxonomy is the scientific study of the proper classification of organisms so
that there will be no confusion. But because many botanic systematists are making
contributions to this field, a single species could be moved from one family to another,
or even to a different order in a matter of years. For example, because of
philosophical beliefs, some botanists would prefer that the common tomato (Lycopersicon
esculentum) be renamed -- Solanum Lycopersicum.
Because of this, suggestions for renaming a plant, and the reasons for it must be decided
upon by a committee before the change can be agreed upon. One committee decides what goes
on the agenda while another will investigate the proposed change. Finally another will
interpret the International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature for
consistency. The main committee will then split into cliques and coalitions that
will decide the final appellation of the plant.
A genus is a group of plants sharing a unique set of common characteristics that
have been given the same first name.
The second word in the botanical binomial is the specific epithet. It has meaning
or it has no meaning of its own, subject to the same lack of rules, abundance of rules,
and avoidance of rules as found above. For every specific epithet that has a meaning
in its archaic Latinized history, there is another which has been invented playfully or
otherwise, and which has no meaning whatever.
The specific epithet, when added to the genus to form the binomial, now becomes the
species, and this is what sets one plant apart from another within the genus.
A specific epithet may be a noun or an adjective.
It may indicate a distinguishing characteristic of structure or flower color in the
species. Elatus, for example, is an adjective meaning tall.
It may indicate something about the habitat where a species happens to flourish. Palustris,
for example, is an adjective meaning from swampy places.
It may indicate the location where the species was first discovered. Monspeliensis,
for example, means from Montpelier.
It may honor a person. Davisii, for example, means Mr. Davis
There are thousands of specific epithets. Some are used only once, and never
applied to any other plant. Some are used across many different genera. Some have
prefixes, suffixes, and different endings depending upon other criteria.
Some specific epithets have an historic meaning while others were just given a name.
Prefixes are numerous both in the Latin and the Greek languages.
Atro, for example, is
a qualifying word meaning "dark", as in atropurpureus. The prefix changes
the meaning from purple to dark purple. Intra and endo, for example, are the Latin
and Greek prefixes, respectively, meaning "within". New epithets are invented
from time to time, and their meanings require a little guessing if you cannot find them in
the references. Monarda austromontana, for example, leads one to believe that this
Monarda is native to (australis=south, southern) plus (montana=from the mountains),
therefore "from the mountains to the south." This plant does indeed come
from the mountains of Southwestern USA, notably from the States of New Mexico and Arizona.
Suffixes permit a wide variety of words to be formed from a single word. Ulentus
is a Latin suffix meaning "abundance", as in succulentus, "full of
juice". Oides is a Greek suffix meaning "resembles", as in Boltonia
asteroides, "like an aster". It does help to know the meaning of the most common
prefixes and suffixes because they will help you to understand the meaning of many
specific epithets without the need to look them up.
Because nouns in Latin change form to express relations or different genders, its
following descriptive adjective may or may not reflect the gender and the declension of
the noun it describes. For example:
Tricolor and leptorhiza are examples of adjectives without endings to reflect the
Annuus, annua, and annuum all have exactly the same meaning, which reflect the gender
of nouns. But the ending is different depending upon the gender of the genus name, i.e.,
masculine=(us), feminine=(a), or neutral=(um).
Humilis (humile), mirabilis (mirabile), Minor (minus) and major
(majus) are examples of
adjectival endings that follow no convention whatsoever.
If by now you are totally confused, do not worry too much about the issue. Instead just follow this advice:
Forget the Latin. Treat all botanical binomials as English
words. Simply add these words to your vocabulary as you have occasion to use them
and relate the specific binomial to the plant.
Forget the adjectival endings as they tend to be anomalies.
The meanings of the stems of these words will remain constant across all genera.
Simply remember that every botanical binomial refers to one
and only one plant, and that no definition of the names used is either required or useful.
Adopt these word combinations into your language and realize that other plants-men
will understand what you mean. Understand that a synonym is an obsolete name that has been
Do not do business with a seller of seeds or plants that does
not provide you with the botanical name of the plant. If they don't know what they
are selling how are you supposed to know what you are growing? You cannot ask a
question about a plant if you cannot say what it is. Guesses about unknown plants
and seeds always result in bad advice.
In summary, the language of common names of plants is a foreign language. Some common names refer to
as many as 12 different species across many different genera. Some species have as
many as 12 different common names. Those nicknames have no real meaning because they each
have too many meanings to be useful. Botanical names, on the other hand, have no
real meaning, however, each of them refers to one and only one plant. That fact
makes them invaluable to you. Using botanical
names will save you much time and grief later on.
The following is a listing of the most common epithets referring to plant or flower
structure, color, or environment where found. Not included are epithets referring to
a place because there are over 700 of those. Also not included are epithets honoring
a person as they too, number in the hundreds. The dictionary is alphabetic.