Sounds Like Greek to Me

Botanical names of plants (Latin Names), are hard to remember, difficult to spell and often impossible to say. So why do we bother with them? Simply to reduce confusion of plant identification. Common garden names are often quite lovely, but cause great confusion between gardeners as to what plant they are really talking about. Common plant names often vary from region to region giving the same plant many different names. Without botanical names there would be little real communication between gardeners around the country, let alone around the globe.

Sensible Gardening and Living
Sensible Gardening and Living

Binomial nomenclature was created by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. Plants are classified by their common characteristics into genus and species. The first part of the botanical name refers to the genus and should be capitalized and in italics. The second part of the name refers to the species and should be written in lowercase and in italics. Members of a species have characteristics that breed true from one generation to another when grown from seed.

To further complicate things plant names also indicate varieties and cultivars. A variety is a variation (in 1 or more characteristics) within the species that occurred naturally. It usually breeds true, but occasionally reverts back to the original species traits. The cultivar is written within single quotes and is the offspring of two plants of the same species or variety than man has bred, usually to create a certain characteristic. Cultivar seeds will not reproduce reliable offspring, but can be reproduced by cuttings, divisions and is some cases tissue culture.

Hybrids are the result of cross breading between 2 different species or varieties. Hybrids are often sterile, and even if they are not do reproduce reliably. Hybrids between 2 species are shown by an x in the name.

Although it all appears to be quite confusing, botanical names allow everyone to discuss plants reliably, and for plants to be represented properly in books, garden centers and sales catalogues.

Botanical names often refer to a specific part of the plant, such as the flower, stem or leaf. Other times it lets you know the climate preference, place of origin or plant’s growth habits. Being familiar with a few of these Latin terms can often help you when choosing plants for your garden. To give you an idea here are a few of the most common:

albus = white/erectus = upright/hirtis = hairy/fragrans = fragrant/ and niger = black …and so on. The best approach is to embrace the language of flowers and not be intimidated by it. Over time and with a little practice you will be talking like a pro!  There are several books on the market that give you the full spectrum of Latin terms to use as a reference.