Gardening 101

Why Botanical Names are Used for Plants

Recently a new Master Gardener and I shared an e-mail correspondence, during which he expressed a disinclination to learn the correct botanical names of plants, a common reluctance experienced by many new gardeners.

While it is true that the basis of these names is of Latin origin, it is a Latin that has grown and changed with the centuries and doesn’t require that eighth grade Latin primer.

I assured this new Master Gardener that the longer he gardened, the sooner the botanical names would become etched in his memory for the simple reason that they provide the simplest method to identify plants accurately.

The botanical name consists of two parts: the first (always capitalized) identifies the genus, while the second name (never capitalized) describes the species.

Appearing at first to be mysterious inventions of Carl Linnaeus, an 18th century botanist, they begin to make some sort of sense on closer inspection. Many of the genus names are already familiar, such as Aster, Canna, Chrysanthemum, Echinacea, Iris, Phlox and Salvia. Others, such as Acer (Maple), Quercus (Oak), and Lagerstroemia (Crepe Myrtle) simply have to be learned.

There are many advantages to using the botanical names:

1.    Common names may vary from region to region.
2.    Because the world uses the botanical names, it’s possible to refer to foreign gardening sources and visit foreign gardens with some comprehension.
3.    Most good gardening catalogues sort alphabetically by the botanical names rather than by the common names.
4.    Many of the common names are confusing: are Butterfly Weed and Butterfly Bush one and the same or are they different plants?

These botanical names are not mere whimsical invention of botanists—rather they have meaning, especially the names of the species.

Many, such as “alba” (white), “caerulea” (blue), and “rubra” (red) denote color while others, such as “alpinea”, “arctica”, “canadensis”, “americana”, and “sibirica” refer to a specific location (although “australis” does not refer to Australia, but to the Southern Hemisphere).

Still others, including “compacta”, “gigantean”, “grandiflora”, and “macrophylla” indicate a physical attribute.

Then there are those species’ names that disconcertingly end in “ii,” such as Amsonia hubrichtii. Leslie Hubricht discovered this particular Amsonia in Arkansas in 1942, thus explaining the “hubricht” part of the name. But how does one pronounce a word ending in “ii?” Botanical rules of pronunciation decree that “ii” is pronounced ee-eye—think of that refrain in “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Often the botanical name is followed by another name (always capitalized) in single quotation marks, usually in English. This third name indicates the cultivar. Examples are Camellia japonica ‘Lavender Prince’ or Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’. The “Solidago” combines two Latin words to mean “to make whole,” referring to goldenrod’s medicinal qualities. The “rugosa” refers to the wrinkled leaves while the “Fireworks” is self-explanatory.

One word of warning: botanical names can change overnight. Recently some Asters became the unpronounceable Symphyotrichum, which is enough to make even the most experienced gardener a little bit crabby.

It took me a long time before Hakonechloa (Hakone=a region in Japan, chloa=grass) tripped merrily off my lips. And I am still working on Trachelospermum jasminoides, aka Confederate Jasmine.

A serious gardener for the past twenty years, Kit Flynn resides in Chapel Hill. She is also a Durham Master Gardener and was one of the founding members of the Durham Garden Forum.

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