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

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:

what's in a plant name binomial nomenclature hydrangea quercifolia ruby slippers oak leaf

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers”
Commonly known as Ruby Slippers Hydrangea
An oak-leaved hydrangea

what's in a plant name binomial nomenclature echinacea pallida pale purple purpurea coneflower

Left: Echinacea pallida
Commonly known as Pale Purple Coneflower
A coneflower with pale purple flowers

Right: Echinacea purpurea
Commonly known as Purple Coneflower
A coneflower with deeper purple flowers

what's in a plant name binomial nomenclature brunnera macrophylla jack frost

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
Commonly known as Jack Frost Brunnera
A brunnera with large leaves

Descriptive of Flower Color/Form/Size:
albawhite
aureagolden, yellow
azureablue
caeruleablue
campanulatelike a bell
chrysanthayellow
coccineared
densifloradense-flowered
flavayellow
flora plenadouble flowers
grandifloralarge flowers
longifloralong flowers
luteayellow
macranthalarge flowers
micranthasmall flowers
multifloramany flowers
pallidapale
parviflorasmall flowers
purpureadeep pink/purple
rosearose pink
rubrared
sanguineablood red
spicataspiked
stellatestarry
sulphureumyellow
umbellateumbel flowers
Descriptive of Place of Origin:
campestrisof the fields
canadensisfrom North America
chinensisfrom China
japonicafrom Japan
montanafrom the mountains
palustrisfrom marshes
rupestrisof the hills/cliffs
saxatilisof rocks
sibericafrom Siberia
sylvestrisof the woods
Descriptive of Season of Bloom:
autumnalisof autumn
praecoxof spring, early
vernalisof spring
Descriptive of Leaf Form/Color/Texture:
angustifolianarrow-leaved
argenteasilvery
digitata5 lobed leaves
lanceolatelance shaped leaves
latifoliawide leaves
longifolialong leaves
macrophyllalarge leaves
maculataspotted
microphyllasmall leaves
millefoliamany leaves
parvifoliasmall leaves
pinnatapinnate leaves
polyphyllamany leaves
quercifoliaoak-leaved
rotundifoliaround leaves
tenuifoliathin/narrow leaves
tomentosafuzzy leaves
trifoliatathree leaves
villosahairy
viridisgreen
vitifoliagrape-like leaves
Descriptive of Distinctive Characteristic:
esculentaedible
foetidaunpleasant smell
macrorrhizumlarge roots
perennisperennial
sativacultivated
somniferumsleep inducing
vulgariscommon
Descriptive of Habit or Form:
caespitosadense
compactacompact
deciduadeciduous
glabrasmooth
humilisshort
nanasmall
pendulahanging/pendant
pumilasmall
pygmaeasmall
scandensclimbing
spinosaspiny

by Zannah Crowe