How plants get their names.

It's often asked why plants have difficult to remember Latin names when their common name is far easier to recall. Even the term 'Latin name' isn't strictly correct as many plant names are derived from other languages, including Greek and native ancient languages. Although whatever the origin of the name they are treated as Latin. The less confusing term for these long-winded names is botanical or scientific name.

Common names can often give a clue to what the plant has been used for in the past. For example Lesser Celandine has small white bulbs, which look like piles, hence it's other common name of pilewort.

But the common name of plants are often misleading and can vary in different areas of the country and indeed the World. For example a bluebell in Scotland is usually called a harebell in England. Other plants have numerous common names, Pulmonaria is commonly known as Jerusalem Primrose, Jack and Jill and Soldiers and Sailors. Sloe and blackthorn are the same plant (Prunus spinosa).

In the USA, Hibiscus syriacus is often called by the common name "Rose of Sharon", which in the UK we commonly use to refer to the genus Hypericum, a totally different plant and family.

Hibiscus syriacus 'Blue Bird', syn. H.s. 'Oiseau Blue' (Tree Hollyhock) Hypericum 'Hidcote' (St. John's Wort, Aaron's beard, Rose of Sharon)
Hibiscus syriacus in the USA commonly called Rose of Sharon. Hypericum in the UK commonly called Rose of Sharon.


The other reason for using botanical names is that with over quarter of a million different species of plant, not all of them have a common name. Therefore names have to be given to avoid confusion, these are unique throughout Britain and the rest of the World.

How are these botanical names derived?

The Romans and Greeks, created the basis for plant naming by describing a particular characteristic or use of a plant, for example erectus meaning upright, pendula meaning hanging, floribunda meaning abundance of flowers, sinensis which is Latin for Chinese, purpurea for purple, alba for white etc. Monasteries, in the Middle Ages, where Latin was commonly used, continued this naming conversion.

Carl Linnaeus, an 18th century naturalist, devised the scientific system that we use today. He classified plants by giving them two names, the first name being the genus and the second the specific name. Put together they provide a name that only one plant (species) can be known.

When the characteristics of plants are similar they are grouped into a genus. Genera that resemble one another are then grouped together in a family. For example the genera Malus, Sorbus, Prunus and Rosa all belong to the family Rosaceae.

Let's take a plant and work out what its name means.

Hibiscus syriacus 'Oiseau bleu' AGM (Hibiscus)

Hibiscus - genus/genera (and is normally shown in italics with a capital initial letter. Abbreviated to a capital letter with a full stop or in bold type and all capital letters).

syriacus - species/epithet (is normally shown in all lower case italic letters). A species is the second part of the scientific name. They are a group of virtually identical, usually interbreeding plants. In this example the genus Hibiscus could be any of the Hibiscus, but Hibiscus syriacus refers to only one Hibiscus species.

'Oiseau bleu' - cultivar/cultivated variety. (shown in single quotes). Not all plants of the same species grow the same. When certain specimens of a plant are bred or discovered that have unusual but desired characteristics (flower colour, drought tolerance, pest resistance, size etc.) plant breeders often give them names to protect their rights to sell the plants. They need to increase the quantities of these plants in order to sell them, these are cultivated by propagation (cuttings, division or selected seeds), as they are derived from the native plant they share the same botanical name.

If a name is given without being in single quotes this is a group name (which prior to 2004 used to be called the cultivar group) and is given a capital initial. e.g. Brassica oleracea Gemmifera Group (Brussels sprouts) or Brassica oleracea Capitata Group (cabbage)

In this example 'Oiseau bleu' is French for Blue Bird and gives a very good idea of the flower colour.

An Award of Garden Merit (AGM), is given by the Royal Horticultural Society to particular garden plants (including flowers, vegetables and fruit) that they would recommend to gardeners to grow. The criteria for an AGM is varied and can be awarded for flower colour, fragrance, crop size, disease resistant, hardiness etc. Plants that are being considered for an AGM are often grown in trials at the RHS gardens, where members of the public, along with RHS committee can see, inspect and vote for their favorites.

Notes:

The naming of plants (nomenclature) is controlled by two international codes.

  • International Code of Botanical Nomenclature - control the botanical naming of plants (both wild and cultivated).
  • International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants - control the naming of cultivars and group species.

 

Other terms you may encounter when looking at plant names:

Family - The family name is not normally included in the plant name, but when it is written, the family has a capital initial letter and follows the genus name. Using the above as an example, the genus Hibiscus is a member of the Malvaceae family. i.e. HIBISCUS - Malvaceae.

Subspecies (abbreviated to ssp. or subsp.) - a distinct variant usually because of growing location (i.e. inland vs. coastal), these are recognised as a different subspecies.

Variety/varietas (abbreviated to var.) - slight differences in plant structure.

Forma (abbreviated to f.) - minor variations in colour of flower or leaf.

Hybrid (abbreviated to X) - in some circumstances two species of plant cross-fertilise to produce a hybrid. They show characteristics of both parent plant. If the parent plants are in different genera X precedes the genus name. If the two parent plants are in the same genera an X is placed before the species (between the genus and species).

F1 hybrid - a term applied to a plant created by crossing two closely related pure-bred varieties, usually for flower colour, flower longevity or fruit size/flavour.

Common names (usually in brackets or double quotes) - easier to pronounce names that usually describe the shape, colour or use of the plant.

Synonym - Often it's found that a plant has been categorised, in the past, incorrectly, if this old name was dropped in favour of the new classification, confusion would arise (typically from reference books and records) so often the old name is given as a synonym (abbreviated to syn. or the old name placed in brackets) after the accepted name.

Plant naming - common plant names >>

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