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 its 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. Gaultheria procumbens has at least 32 common names including boxberry, checkerberry, partridge berry and wintergreen. 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, sempervirens is Latin for always green, sinensis 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/specific 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). Whilst the seeds of most plants will germinate and grow to be identical to their parent plant (termed 'True to type') there may be some variance between the parent plant and the new seedling e.g. flower colour, drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, height, spread etc. If this happens and is discovered in nature (called natural breeding or natural selection) it is accepted as a variety. This new plant name is written as Genus species, followed by the abbreviation var. then the variety name, written in lower case and italicized. If this variation is bred/cultivated (called selective breeding/artificial selection) or hybridised from two plants, for unusual or desired characteristics, this is a cultivar and written inside single quotes (although sometimes the abbreviation "cv." is used), after the botanic name, as per the Hibiscus example above.

A plant name can contain a variety and a cultivar, for example the bushy, evergreen shrub: Pieris formosa var. forrestii 'Wakehurst' has the variety 'forrestii', named after the Scottish plant-hunter and botanist George Forrest. The cultivar name of 'Wakehurst' is perhaps a reference to the Kew Gardens site in Wakehurst, West Sussex.

Cultivars don't always germinate true to type, when nurseries and growers need to increase the quantities of these plants in order to sell them, these are cultivated by vegetative propagation (cuttings, division or tissue division).

Plant breeders want to protect their investment in the long, hit and miss development of a plant for sale, so you may see PBR after the plant name. This is an abbreviation of Plant Breeders' Rights which grants rights to the original grower, prohibiting the commercial propagation and sale of copies of the plant (without a licence) for 25-30 years. Theses plants will often be given an alternative name which is known as a trade designation. e.g. Clematis SHIMMER ('Evipo028' PBR)

Plant breeders may also protect the name of a plant by registering a trademark name. For example in the David Austin rose Rosa GERTRUDE JEKYLL® ('Ausbord') the trademark name is written in capitals, the cultivar is in single quotes and in brackets.

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 (RHS) 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.


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

  • IAPT: International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. Controlling the botanical naming of plants (both wild and cultivated). Prior to 2011 this was called the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature
  • ISHS: International Society for Horticulrural Science, which publishes the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. 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.

sp. used when discussing an unknown or unspecified species of a particular genus. spp. (abbreviation for species pluralis) is the plural of sp. it's used when referring to more than one unknown or unspecified species of a genus. For example Hosta sp. for a single species or Hosta spp. referring to multiple species of Hosta. Unfortunately these abbreviations can easily be confused with ssp. as below.

Subspecies (abbreviated to ssp. - generally in the animal kingdom, or subsp. - generally used in botany) - a subspecies is a distinct variant, usually because of growing location (i.e. inland vs. coastal), these are recognised as a different subspecies. The plural of subsp. is subspp. which is used when refering to multiple subspecies.

Variety/varietas/varietal (abbreviated to var. or v.) - slight differences in plant structure. e.g. The varietal term stellata in Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata 'Blue Barlow' means 'set with stars'.

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.

Group names (before 2004 this used to be called the cultivar group) Similar but genetically different plants are categorised into the same group, for example Brassica oleracea covers a wide range of plants, so are sub-divided into groups: kale cultivars are categorised into the Brassica oleracea (Acephala Group), broccoli cultivars into Brassica oleracea (Italica Group), cabbage cultivars into Brassica oleracea (Capitata Group) and Brussels sprouts into Brassica oleracea (Gemmifera Group).

All words in a group name should be capitalised. Occasionally the 'Group' in the group name might be abbreviated to 'Gp' (without a trailing fullstop) and if a name is given without being in single quotes this is a generally a group name and is given a capital initial.

cvs. You'll sometimes see a plant genus followed by cvs. which is an abbreviation of 'cultivated variety'. For example when you see Lavatera cvs. written down, it is referring to the cultivars of Lavatera

Aff. Used in plant naming (nomenclature), Aff. is an abbreviation of 'species affinis', suggesting a plant is similar but not identical to an already named/recognised species. Affinis is the latin word for related.

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

Angiosperms are any flowering plants. They develop seeds inside their fruit and make up approximately 80% of all plants. Gymnosperms (conifers and cycads) develop seeds outside of an ovule, typically on their leaves or on the scales of cones.

Plant naming - common plant names >>

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