< Learn Scientific Names to Understand Your Plants Better
By Jill Robbins
06 March 2023

Plant lovers often look at lists of plants or seeds for sale in the winter to plan their gardens for the coming year.

Those lists usually have two names for each plant: a common name and a botanical, or scientific name. The botanical name is not in English, which makes a lot of people unsure about what it means or how to say it.

The language is Latin. Its purpose is to help growers be sure that the plant they bring home is the one they wanted to buy. The problem with common names is that they are nicknames, or informal names, for plants. Many plants can share a common name. One plant can also have many common names. You can see how this can cause misunderstandings.

A sculpture of Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus stands in the Heritage Garden of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
A sculpture of Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus stands in the Heritage Garden of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

For example, you may have heard the name "geranium." The common name for the true Geranium is perennial cranesbill. The container plant people call the geranium is actually a Pelargonium.

History of Botanical Latin

The Latin system of naming goes back to the 1700s and Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus. His books Systema Naturae and Fundamenta Botanica created rules for classifying and naming plants in botanical Latin. For this reason, gardeners should try to become familiar with it.

Linnaeus spent his life giving every plant and animal that he knew a two-part, or binomial, name. The two parts are: genus and species. These names are often based on the appearance of parts of the plant or animal.

Linnaeus' International Code of Botanical Nomenclature sets rules for how plants should be named. They include:

  1. A plant name must start with a capitalized genus,
  2. The second part of the name is the species, written in lower-case, usual letter.
  3. Next, the name includes either a variety (if the plant is found in nature), cultivar (if the plant is created by a breeder) or hybrid name (if it is a cross between two plants, an "x" is used).

Who chooses the scientific name?

The International Botanical Congress has gathered every six years to examine and decide on new naming questions. The questions come up because of new genetic research and scientific findings. After all, Linnaeus did not have modern microscopes or DNA testing laboratories to decide which plants are related.

For example, bleeding hearts, once officially called Dicentra spectabilis, were moved into the newly created Lamprocapnos genus several years ago. Their name is now Lamprocapnos spectabilis.

The snapdragon, a popular garden flower, was once in the Antirrhinum genus. The Congress moved it into the plantain family, Plantaginaceae.

No control over common names

Since no group controls the use of common names, the same plant may have several. Take Rudbeckia hirta. Some call it a black-eyed Susan, others say it is a yellow-oxeye daisy and others know it as the gloriosa daisy.

Ask a garden center employee for a snowball bush, and you might walk out with a Hydrangea arborescens or a Viburnum plicatum. There is a big difference. The first one has large round flower heads that bloom in the summer. The second one has groups of smaller flowers and blooms in the spring. But both are beautiful.

How can you learn the botanical name for a plant before you buy it? Search for the common name in the Royal Horticultural Society's free online Garden Plant Finder and get a list of the botanical names. You can also search for a botanical name and learn the common names.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Jessica Damiano wrote this story for the Associated Press. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English.


Words in This Story

botanical adj. of plants or plant life

classify –v. to order in groups based systematically on qualities of one kind or another

genus – n. a major category in the classification of animals, plants, and the like, ranking above a species and below a family: it can include one species or many similar species

speciesn. a class of plants or animals whose members have the same main characteristics and are able to breed with each other.

varietyn. a kind of animal or plant produced by artificial breeding

cultivarn. a variety of plant that began and continued under cultivation

hybridn. an animal or plant resulting from a cross between genetically unlike individuals

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