Gardener’s may know a plant by a variety of names, but many don’t know what’s in a plant name. The most familiar to many gardeners is probably the “common name”. This is the everyday name that many use to refer to a particular garden plant. However, these can vary from region to region, and even from person to person, which can lead to confusion about exactly which plant is being referred to. On the other hand, each plant has only one “botanical” or “scientific” name. For this reason, professional horticulturists prefer to call a plant by its proper botanical name to eliminate any doubt about exactly what plant they are referring to.
Botanical names are based on binomial (“two names”) nomenclature, which means that each plant name has two parts; Genus and species. Think of the Genus name as equivalent to a person’s last (or family) name and the species as equivalent to a person’s first (or given) name. The Genus describes the plant in a GENeral way and the species name describes the plant in a SPECific way. The Genus name is always capitalized while the species name is written in lower case letters, as shown:
Genus species (Common Name)
Capitalize lower case (in parentheses or quotes)
Binomial nomenclature was developed in the 17th century by a Swedish Botanist named Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus based his naming system on the Latin language, as that was a universal language understood by most educated people of the time. Many of the Latin words used in naming plants are descriptive. As a result, simply knowing the botanical name of a plant may provide you with a quite a bit of information about the plant, including such things as its flower size and color, country of origin, preferred growing conditions, and plant habit!
For this article I am are going to concentrate on the species names, the second part of the two-part name. The species name is often descriptive and can provide important information about the plant: