The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Understanding Botanic Names

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Ok, I admit it. I'm a plant geek. And as a plant geek I actually enjoy botanic names. You know those fancy names with an over abundance of syllables attached to plant labels. Now before your eyes glaze over, let's get some historical perspective. Before 1753 scientific names were descriptive phrases. For instance rose might be listed as Rosa fragrans folis medio tenus serratis. You think the names are hard now, can you imagine having to spit out that phrase?

Back in 1753 a very wise, or perhaps just very word frugal guy named Linnaeus, came up with the binomial (two name) system. In other words, there are two words (most of the time) to name a very specific plant or animal species. No other plant or animal can have that same name. With horticultural plants we may also see cultivar (short for cultivated variety) written in single quotes attached to the botanic name such as Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote' for 'Hidcote' lavender.

Scientific names are italicized when typing and underlined when written. The first word, the genus, is capitalized and the second word, the specific epithet, is usually lower case unless it is taken from a proper name. Both words make up the species name.

Now you may be thinking that's all fine and good for scientists and plant geeks, but why should hobby gardeners care about botanic names? Why don't we just use the easy down-home common name? That calls for a story. A friend ordered coffeetrees from a place in Missouri. Now in my mind and in hers there is just one tree known as a coffeetree. Well evidently in Missouri they call catalpas coffeetrees. They are very different trees. A botanic name would have prevented the confusion. Botanic names mean you get what you pay for.

Common names vary from region to region. Just think of all the different plants you have seen called black-eyed Susan or daisy. In contrast botanic names are universal. Several years ago we hosted some gardeners from Czechoslovakia. I was a bit worried about communication since I'm no linguist. Luckily we could still talk plants since we all knew the botanic names. Gardening is a universal language.

Usually the hang up with botanic names is the pronunciation. Many of the names are Latin but not all the rules of Latin grammar are consistently followed. English doesn't follow all the rules either and we manage to communicate most of the time. Often you can pick up botanic name pronunciations just by hanging out with other plant geeks. This may not always be the most accurate pronunciation, but it's usually the acceptable pronunciation.

Botanic names can also provide valuable information once you learn the language. Often a species or cultivar name will include color, size or shape references. It might be albus or leuco for white flowers, argenteus for silver leaves, or minimus for smaller. It could also be in reference to its habitat or area of origin such as alpinus in reference to alpine.

Sometimes the names are just fun as in Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. The genus Echinacea means hedgehog. If you have ever looked at a coneflower seed head it looks just like its namesake. The specific epithet purpurea means purple in reference to the flower color.

Learning botanic names are just like learning any new language. It's scary at first since we don't want to sound stupid. Just relax. It takes practice. Remember the Roadrunner, Acceleratii incredibilus. Look at the name, get in all the syllables then say it with authority.

Gardener's Chats at the Idea Garden:

Saturday, May 28 at 11:00 a.m.
Bug-Geta: Managing Garden Insects with Dr. Raymond Cloyd, U of I entomologist

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