Demystifying Botanical Latin
I became interested in horticulture when I obtained a list of deer resistant plants that was entirely in botanical Latin. The list was absolutely meaningless to me. I had to look up every single Latin name to know what plant they were talking about. As I started to think about a career in horticulture, I vowed that I would make it as easy as possible for laypersons to understand what I was talking about.
In this discussion I hope to demystify botanical Latin and show you how it aids the plant identification process. While it appears very intimidating at first, once most people get use to it they find it the easiest way to communicate about plants. Many of the same Latin words are used over and over again, but in different ways and combinations. With a little practice you will quickly recognize these Latin words and learn their meanings. In fact, I now frequently find myself groping through my memory banks for the common name of many plants.
Why Do We Have Botanical Latin?
Different parts of the country refer to the same plant by different common names. For example, the name bottlebrush bush generally refers to a plant botanically called Fothergilla gardenii in the northeast United States. However, in California and Florida the name bottlebrush bush generally refers to a group of shrubs in the botanical genius Callistemon, which is totally different than what the people in the northeast are talking about. To further complicate things, there is third plant, again completely different, called the bottlebrush buckeye. This third plant is botanically called Aesculus parviflora.
Things become even more complicated when you are trying to communicate to someone on the other side of the planet. For example, the plant botanically named Convallaria majalis is commonly called lily-of-the-valley in English, muguet in French, landysh in Russian, and Maiblume in German.
In order for horticulturists to be able to communicate with each other, botanical Latin was created. No matter where you are in the world, each plant has a unique botanical Latin name. For example, whether you are in Brazil, China or the United States the term Boltonia asteroides means the same thing. It is referring to the tall perennial that gets white or pink flowers in August and September.
I had an instructor who took a tour of the gardens in China. He couldn't speak or read a word of Chinese. Nevertheless, he could read all of the nametags on the plants in the gardens because they were written in botanical Latin. He knew exactly what every plant was.
The Binomial Naming System
Throughout history several different methods of naming plants were developed. However, the one that has lasted the test of time and is universally accepted is the binomial system, established by Swedish botanist Charles Linnaeus in the 1700s.
To ensure the system is consistent throughout the world, an international set of rules governing how plant names are developed and used was created. It is called the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP).
The binomial naming system uses Latin primarily for two reasons. First, especially during the 1700s when Linnaeus lived, Latin was considered the language of learned people. At that time most scholars knew Latin. Second, Latin isn't the language of any living people or nation. Consequently, using Latin doesn't create any bias for or against any group of people.
As the word binomial means two parts, the binomial naming system is based on each plant having a two-part name. The two parts of the name are known as the genus and the specific epithet. Together, the genus and the specific epithet are known as the species. The species can be further delineated to specify a particular variety, cultivar or form. However, every plant name will be composed of at least a genus and a specific epithet.
The Classification System
Linnaeus's binomial naming system is based on the classification system. The human brain functions best when it can group similar items into categories. The classification system is used to group, or classify, all forms of life. Most of us learned about the classification system in high school. However, it has changed significantly in recent years.
When I went to high school, all life was classified into one of two kingdoms, the plant kingdom or the animal kingdom. Now there are five different kingdoms! The plant and animal kingdom still exist, but some of the life forms that were previously classified as either plants or animals now have their own kingdom. The three new kingdoms are: fungi, bacteria and protozoa. Although gardeners fret and fuss a great deal about having the right kind of fungi in their soil, we will focus our discussion on the plant kingdom, also called Plantae in botanical Latin.
The plant kingdom is divided into subcategories, as shown below.
Variety or subspecies
For most gardening enthusiasts the categories of division, class, and order are not significant. However, things get really interesting for us at the family level.
Just like people within the same family share characteristics, so do plants that belong to the same family. Taxonomists, the people who have devoted their careers to categorizing and naming plants, group plants into families primarily based on similarities in the plant's reproductive structures (flowers, fruits, and seeds). All family names end in the letters 'aceae' and begin with a capital letter.
For example, plants in the Rosaceae family typically have flowers with five petals, or petals arranged in groups of five. Members of the Rosaceae family include: apples, pears, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, plumes, roses, and serviceberry. The Rosaceae family is one of the largest plant families.
Another family is Ginkgoaceae. It is one of the smallest plant families. The famous ginkgo tree, botanically called Ginkgo biloba, is its' only member.
Below family is the category known as genus. Within a family, members that are most closely related comprise a genus. Think of it in terms of a human family. Your have your immediate family relatives (husband, wife and children) and distant family relatives (cousins, uncles, and aunts). Immediate family members form a genus. Although similarities in fruits and flowers are still used to help define a genus, other similarities are also used to define a genus, such as: roots, stems, buds, and leaves. The genus is always capitalized. The plural for genus is genera.
As previously stated, the Rosaceae family is one of the largest plant families. It has more than 100 genera. The plants that we commonly call roses are members of the genus called Rosa within the Rosaceae family. Apples are also members of the Rosaceae family. All apple trees are members of the genus Malus. All cherry trees are in the genus Prunus, which is also in the Rosaceae family. All pears are in the Rosaceae genus called Pyrus.
The division below genus is the species. The species name is made up of two parts: the genus name and the specific epithet. For example, within the Rosaceae family is the genus Prunus which includes all the cherry, plum and almond trees. One very specific type of cherry tree is called Prunus tomentosa. Prunus is the genus, tomentosa is the specific epithet. When you combine the genus followed by the specific epithet you get the name of the species, Prunus tomentosa. The genus is always capitalized and the specific epithet is never capitalized.
You never use the specific epithet by itself. For example, you would never refer to the tree called Prunus tomentosa just as tomentosa. This is because the specific epithet is a descriptive word that may be used as the specific epithet for another plant. In our example, the specific epithet tomentosa means hairy and is referring to the plant's hairy leaves. Another plant with the same specific epithet is Tilia tomentosa, which is a type of linden tree. Just as the name Rebecca could mean any number or people, the name Rebecca Green tells more preciously who you mean.
Sometimes the genus portion of a species name is abbreviated. When writing about several different plants all within the same genus it is acceptable to abbreviate the genus by using only its' first letter capitalized. For example, if you are writing about several different species of maple the genus will be Acer for all of them. Consequently, rather than writing out Acer platanoides (Norway maple), Acer rubrum (red maple), Acer saccharinum (silver maple) and Acer saccharum (sugar maple), it is acceptable to write A. platanoides (Norway maple), A. rubrum (red maple), A. saccharinum (silver maple) and A. saccharum (sugar maple).
What is in a name? A name tells you a lot about a plant when the name is in botanical Latin. That's because each of those funny sounding Latin words means something. To demonstrate this, let's figure out what the name of a very common plant, Juniperus procumbens 'Nana' tells us. I know the genus of the plant is Juniperus because it is the first word in the name and it is capitalized. All plants that are in the genus Juniperus are evergreen trees or shrubs that need full sun light. The specific epithet is procumbens. The word procumbens means growing flat to the ground, i.e., it is a groundcover plant. The word in quotations, Nana, means dwarf. So even if I have never seen this plant or read about it I know from its' name that it is an evergreen that needs full sun, grows close to the ground, and is a dwarf or small variety.
What is that word in quotes? It is the cultivar name. Beneath species are the divisions of variety or subspecies, cultivar, and forma. A plant's name may not include any of these divisions. These divisions are only used to denote a characteristic that is different from the normal species.
A cultivar is a plant that is somehow significantly different that the rest of the species and this difference is passed on from generation to generation when the plants reproduce. In our example, Juniperus procumbens 'Nana', 'Nana' is the cultivar name. As we mentioned above, the word Nana mean dwarf. So the cultivar 'Nana' differs from the species Juniperus procumbens in that it is a dwarf. The offspring of a Juniperus procumbens 'Nana' plant will also be dwarf.
Another example of a cultivar name is Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'. The genus is Cercis, which is a type of under story tree with green deciduous leaves that grows in Asia and North America. The specific epithet is canadensis, which refers to the fact that it grows in Canada and northern climate zones. The species is Cercis canadensis. The cultivar is 'Forest Pansy', which has red leaves instead of the green leaves commonly found in the species. The offspring of a 'Forest Pansy' plant will also have red leaves.
Did you notice the cultivar name 'Forest Pansy' is in English? It isn't until you get below the species level (i.e., a variety or subspecies, a cultivar, or a forma) that the name will be anything other than Latin. Non-Latin words are allowed in the portion of the name designating variety or subspecies, cultivar or forma. However, Latin is still frequently used in even these portions of a plant name.
The division called forma refers to a plant that again differs from the species, but these differences may not be passed on to the plant's offspring. For example, Lindera benzoin forma rubra is a red flowered form (rubra means red) of the normally yellow flowered shrub Lindera benzoin. The offspring of Lindera benzoin forma rubra will typically have yellow flowers. The only way to be sure a new plant has the forma characteristic, in this case red flowers, is to root a cutting of the original plant. When dealing with a plant that is a forma, you always include the word forma in the name. For example, the weeping form of European beech is called Fagus sylvatica forma pendula.
This leaves us with variety or subspecies. A variety of a plant usually differs from the species in where it grows. For example, sugar maples, Acer saccharum, usually grow from Canada to Georgia and as far west as Minnesota. However, the variety called nigrum grows in Iowa. Variety is abbreviated var. and subspecies is abbreviated subsp. or ssp.
The Offspring of Mixed Plant Marriages
When two different species of plant are crossed, sexually producing offspring, the botanical name of the new plant is written as a formula. An example of this is Laburnum x watereri. One of this plants' parents is Laburnum alpinum and the other is Laburnum anagyroides. The "x" in the new plants' name indicates it is a cross between two different plant species.
Most hybrid plants are the result of controlled breading between two related species, both plants have the same genus. However, occasionally two plants from different genera are bread. In these instances a capital "X" is placed before the name of the plant, which will have a new genus name formed by combining the genus names of the parents. For example, the botanical name for Leyland Cypress is X Cupressocyparis leylandii. It is the child of Cupressus macrocarpa and Chamaecyparis nootkatensis
Pronouncing botanical Latin words can be tricky. As Latin isn't a spoken language, who is to say what correct pronunciation is? However, there are several rules of thumb to help:
Pronounce every vowel
Stress the next to the last syllable
If next to the last syllable has a short vowel then stress the third from the end.
Usually "ch" is hard
Botanical Latin: The Gardener's Language of Choice
I have met many people who think the use of botanical Latin is snobbish. I use to be one of them. However, these individuals are greatly mistaken. Botanical Latin is an accurate and necessary tool used by professionals throughout the world to clearly communicate about plants.
Like learning many new things, learning botanical Latin can be intimidating, challenging and frustrating. However, once you learn the basics of botanical Latin, you probably will never want to refer to plants by their common names again.
If you are a serious gardener, I strongly urge you to take the time and effort to learn botanical Latin. Not only will it make reading gardening books and magazines much more pleasurable, it will avail a whole new world of knowledge. If nothing else, you can have fun impressing your friends and family with those funny sounding words!
Now do you want to try your new knowledge with a Botanical Name Search of our Garden Plants Encyclopedia ?