Plant Names and Why They Matter

“Most of us are bored with gossip and photographs

of people we do not know.

The beginner feels the same way about plants”[1]

The plant scene becomes more interesting when you understand the cast of characters a bit. To develop relationships with the plant players, you will want to get to know them as individual kinds. The only reliable way to do that is to know their true Botanical names.

These names are the language of the landscape, the working vocabulary that you will need if you want more than a petting and tending relationship with your plants. If you want to think about them on your own and with others, you will need to be able to refer to them.

  • Information Please
    Once you have the Botanical name of a plant, no matter where you gather further reference information about it, the knowledge you acquire will be accurately related to the particular plant you are wondering about.
    Learning about the plant materials enables you to choose the best candidates for your place by foreseeing where they will succeed ecologically and pictorially in your landscape.
  • Knowing the Name allows you to get more of the same thing again.
    If it turns out that you grow and love a plant, you will be able to get more just  like it or to guide others to that wonderful kind you have found.
  • The most Beautiful Plant You have ever Seen.
    To obtain a plant you want for your own garden, you could beg some seeds or a baby from a place where you see it, but otherwise, you will need the full name to get the plant you expect to get from anywhere else.
  • There are Madison Avenue plants. [2]
    Plants may be substantially more or less gardenworthy. There can be a great qualitative difference between one variety within a species and the others, yet the better ones often cost pretty much the same as their lesser relatives, both in cash and in effort to grow and keep. The less wonderful ones always seem to outnumber the best ones, but there are a great many plants to be choosy with, and noone can grow them all, so why not be discriminating ?

    The best plants may be harder to get a hold of initially, but once you realize that the difference is substantial you will want to know which is which.

“Difficult plants if not successful after a fair trial

should be abandoned for easier subjects of which there are plenty”

Sir Peter Smithers of Vico Morcote

  • By carefully choosing the best, you will be protecting and propagating the exceptional ones for the future.
    To understand the importance of the differences in the names, you can compare this to your type and brand name choices in groceries. You’re off to the store for your favorite cereal.You may want flakes, but do you want large ones or small, wheat, corn or bran? And you may prefer the one with the raisins, so you will search for the one with all these characteristics, and try a few different ones. Which one you end up liking best is up to you, but Kelloggs Raisin Bran ® and Post Raisin Bran ® taste different from each other.
    Once you know your favorite, you want to be able to get the one you like so much again.
    You can only do that with plants if you know their Botanical names.

“Without names there is no recognition,

without recognition there is no minding,

and without minding there is no future.”

Geoffrey Grigson[3]

Bottlephorkia spoonifolia    (11)

The only Plant names which are accurate are

the Botanical Names,which are the

Generic names accompanied by their Specific Epithets.

Some people will refer to these names with terms such as

the ‘ ‘True names’, the ‘Generic names’, the’ Specific names’,

the ‘Latin names’, ‘the Binomial‘ names or the ‘Taxonomic’ names……

The Good News is that

All these terms refer to the

Same Plant Name,

= Which is the Botanical Name.[4]

  • Each plant is by its full Botanical name unique.
    By considering the qualities and propensities of particular plant materials your informed choices can make all the difference in the world to the level of beauty and sustainability you can hope to attain in the landscape.
  • Common names
    While charming, and sometimes informative, these names usually apply to a broad group of similar plants. These kinds of names may vary from place to place, from culture to culture and change over time. For such reasons common names don’t help you much in getting to know the special plant you were curious about any better.
  • Some of the very best plants of all time are no longer in commercial cultivation.
    Purchasing plants is kind of like voting. If people don’t pay attention, they may be buying and thus multiplying just the most popular plants of the moment.
    You help the ones you acquire stay in commerce, and often the others do not stay.
    You wouldn’t want to neglect the very best plants that have ever been, who would be so satisfying in the garden context. The better ones deserve to be remembered and asked for by Name.

“The Common is more Supported than the Rare.”[5]

So you will want to know Who’s Who.

Botanical Names Tell Stories.

“Each Plant has a Generic name and a Specific Epithet” [6]

The specific epithet is often a descriptive or characterizing word or phrase composed of multiple words.
This means that the true Botanical name of a plant may be a piece of descriptive prose, if only you know how to translate some pieces of the Botanical language.

  • These Three Things about your Plant will be parts of its Name:

1. The Genus, or Surname of the larger clan to which your plant is related.
This is given on the Left Side of the Botanical name
( = the opposite of the human name way)

2. The Specific Epithet
This follows to the Right of the Surname. The species and subsequent names of the epithet are often adjectives.
A species has traditionally been partly defined as a group closely related enough to intermarry.
Through these marriages there can ensue a great many closely related forms, some which are distinguishable by some meritorious characteristic from other close kin within that species. This may be, for instance, desirable color, texture, stance, shape, duration of bloom or pest resistance in this particular offspring.

3. The Variety
If there is merit to the differences between kin, that special kind of plant will perhaps get a subspecies or varietal name of its own and then will be separately propagated.
This third name is a very important bit because with only the genus and species names, you won’t know which offspring you might end up with from all those marriages.

  • Clues Within the Names
    The species and subsequent names often work as adjectives. For this reason, embedded in the Botanical names are often partial descriptions of the particular kind of plant. They may contain clues to notable particulars of character, appearance in color or texture, and sometimes to behavior or ecology of origin.
    Sometimes the variety name references the ‘Human story’ of that kind of plant. The plant name may honor the people, places or particular nurseries involved in either originating, finding and/or perhaps propagating the plant you are getting to know.

Manypeeplia upsidownia

As an example of descriptive naming,

from A Nonsense Botany by Edward Lear.

  • Botanical names are more easily remembered when you understand their intrinsic meanings.
    The appended adjectives help you to understand things about your plants, so you will probably enjoy learning some of this vocabulary.
    The plant below is related to all Clovers = Oxalis but note the appended adjectives. This particular kind has some special characteristics as described in its name.

    Vive la Difference.
  • A Translated example from the Real World :


Oxalis triangularis papilionaceae ‘Atropurpurea’

Triangularis = shaped like triangles, =  three angles
Certainly describes the leaf shape well.

papilionaceae = like a butterfly
In the night this plant closes up its leaves and they look like butterflies at rest.

Atro = dark, purpurea = purplish color
Dark purplish leaves which contrast beautifully with green foliage in the surroundings.

  • Your Translations

You will need a Plant Lexicon or a Naturalist’s Lexicon[9], whether paper or Cyber, to ‘decode’ the information within the Botanical names.
Whether the words came from Latin, Greek, old English or wherever, a Lexicon can help you translate the specific epithet to find out what the adjectives at hand actually mean.

  • If you can just be brave enough to begin to think in ‘plant language’, start with your few words. Add more words to your vocabulary little by little as you go along, just as you would with any language you were trying to learn. Having learned a little of the vocabulary, when you come across new plant names that contain this word you will automatically know something about the plant at hand, though you have only just met.
    The important thing is to decide to put yourself in a milieu where the language is used, and pay attention. Make a beginning, do the best you can, and all will be well.
    Learning a language takes time. Expect to take notes.
  • Never mind perfect pronounciation or exact spelling, ask about it later.
    Just try for enough of the spelling to subsequently get Google’s help in the matter.

In “Winnie the Pooh” Christopher Robin made a sign for Owl’s door which said “Ples nok if rnser is reqrd”. [10]

We readers figured out what was meant.




[1] Fletcher Steele, Gardens and People
Madison Avenue in New York City is renowned for having shops with the highest level of beautiful merchandise for sale, but the things are invariably expensive.
From an article in The English Garden, By Plantlife International
It seems to me that if we capitalise the terms “Latin” names and “Greek” names that we ought to capitalise “Botanical”  names, as it refers to the language of  the Plant Kingdom.
Andrea Bocelli
Michael Dirr, who always says things well.
[7] and (11) From A Nonsense Botany by Edward Lear

[8] Watercolor by Racket Shreve
Horticulture Publications has recently (2005) published such a volume, calling it Plant Names Explained. It has lots of useful Botanical terms in translation.I also have a lovely old volume from 1944 called The Naturalists Lexicon by R.S Woods, and it serves me very well much of the time, though less complete for Botanical references.
A.A. Milne


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