All plants have one unique botanical name

When is a spade, called a spade or is it a shovel?

Likewise, in horticultural terms, a rose by any other name, may not be a rose.

At our annual plant sale, an old situation arose.  Do we label the plants for sale with the common or botanical (Latin) name?  Our horticultural society’s mandate is to educate and a decision was made to print both names on the plant tag.

This leads to the questions, why are botanical names used to identify plants and why all those hard-to-pronounce names?

Is it because horticulture attracts the learned few?  Is it out of aloofness? Would it be better to use a common name that everyone could pronounce and understand?

Perhaps the easiest way to clarify the need for botanical versus common names is to begin with ourselves.  When born, we were all registered with a birth certificate.  This name appears on all legal documents that identifies us.  During our lifespan we may acquire many nicknames, short forms or terms of endearment (mother, mom, mum, grandma, nanny).  These names are usually family preferences or regional in nature.

Because plant names are used by everyone throughout the world, in every language, the same variation of names will cause much confusion when trying to identify a particular characteristic or a specific plant.

All living things or parts thereof are identified by Latin names.  The television programs, Grey’s Anatomy and CSI are excellent examples.  Operations on the human body are a common occurrence.

The word “femur” is the Latin word for thigh. Throughout the worldwide medical community, a femur is the bone in the leg that extends from the hip to the knee. The thigh bone/femur constitutes the upper leg, that part of the leg above the knee.

The term “femur” has been used so often that it has become familiar to our ears.

How does this apply to horticultural names? To answer the question with an example, let me pose a question.  “What are those yellow daisy-like flowers with dark purplish brown center called?

It should be noted that it is one of a number of plants with the common name Black-eyed Susan. Depending on the region and cultural heritage they are also known as, Brown-eyed Susan, Blackiehead, Brown Betty, Brown Daisy, Gloriosa Daisy, Golden Jerusalem, Poorland Daisy, Yellow Daisy and Yellow Ox-eye Daisy.

Rudbeckia is the botanical name.  It is one name that everyone can learn to pronounce and immediately form the same image.

Not everyone will be able to form an image using “nicknames”. Common names will vary from language to language and from region to region.  Often two varieties quite unrelated may share the same common name.

Hence, we will cause too much confusion when we do not use scientific names of plants in favour of their common name. In fact, even within the same region a specimen may well have more than one nickname.

Swedish naturalist, Carolus (Carl) Linnaeus (1707-1778) is best known for his method to formulate the scientific name of every species. Linnaeus divided nature into three kingdoms: mineral, vegetable and animal.  He used five ranks: class, order, genus, species, and variety.

His classification is still used worldwide and is established by the “International Code of Botanical Nomenclature”.

When Linnaeus created his classification method, Latin was the language of science as it was the worldwide universal language. It is this universality that is still used today in the accepted name for each single plant.

You don’t have to learn Latin but knowing a little bit about how and why plants are given their names, can be valuable knowledge when you are looking for growing advice or when you are shopping for a plant.

Plants are given a first name called the “genus,” (a group of plants which share certain structural characteristics) and a second name called the “species” (place where the plant is native, the appearance, or the person accredited with the discovery).

Additional words may be added to the name to describe further subdivisions.

Hybrids are named by the creator and are preceded by an ‘x’.

A good method of remembering the botanical name is just using it regularly.  Start with plants that you have in your garden.  Labeling each one with a plant tag is also very helpful when trying to remember specific names. This knowledge increases naturally as the gardener becomes more experienced.

More Articles