The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Demystifying Botanic Language

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Every leisure, hobby, or sport gardener quickly learns the language of gardening such as:

  • Annual – plant that lives for one year, or one day if the price tag exceeds gardener's budget.
  • Bed – horizontal area often worked in outdoors and seldom slept in indoors.
  • Deadhead – process of removing old flowers to keep weedy plants from reseeding in the flower bed instead dispersing a trail of wayward seeds from the garden to the compost pile.
  • Debug – process of whacking Japanese beetles off roses.
  • Sucker – indeed born every minute from tree roots.
  • Water - verb "to water" as in "I can't believe I have to water these plants again"; also noun as in "Will it ever start (or stop) falling from the sky"?

Certain gardening language, however, can induce stuttering and stammering even in the most gifted gardeners; the scientific language of plant names, also called botanical language.

We owe a lot to Carolus Linnaeus who back in 1753 got fed up with the old plant naming system. Necessity shmessity. I'm convinced frustration is the mother of invention.

Before Linnaeus, species names were long and tedious: Rosa carolina fragrans foliis medio tenus serratis. Just rolls right off your tongue. Doesn't it? Linnaeus in his infinite wisdom came up with the binomial system where plants would have two names combined to make their distinct species name.

Now before your eyes start glossing over and you wonder if there is more coffee in the coffeepot, botanic names are significant to the novice gardener as well as the seasoned professional. Botanic names show plant relationships throughout the world and are internationally recognized. When purchasing plants it's a guarantee of sorts as to what you are getting. Botanic names are often descriptive so they can reveal clues to plant characteristics or growing conditions.

Common names such as daisy and sunflower have an inherent problem. They vary wildly from place to place. For example Black-eyed Susan is a common name for many different plants. Some are annuals. Some are biennials. Some are perennial. Some have 2-inch flowers and some have 4-inch flowers. There is even a Black-eyed Susan vine. Without the botanic name you have no idea what to expect.

The binomial (two name) system of species identification consists of the genus and the specific epithet. For example Red Maple, also known as Scarlet Maple and Swamp Maple, are common names of a popular tree. The species name is Acer rubrum with Acer as the genus and rubrum as the specific epithet. Rubrum means red. Other maples would share the same genus name, but would have a different specific epithet such as Silver Maple, Acer saccharinum, and Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum. The authority or person first describing the plant is also listed as in Acer rubrum L. for Linnaeus.

Botanic names should always be in italics or underlined if written. The genus name is always capitalized. The specific epithet is always correctly written in lower case.

Since Mother Nature loves variety there are subspecies, forms, and varieties of some species. For instance Thornless Honey Locust is Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis. Inermis means thornless and can refer to many thornless versions of typically thorny plants.

Horticulturists love to monkey around with plant characteristics so there are also cultivated varieties known as cultivars. These are listed after the species name and are capitalized and in single quotes or proceeded by "cv." as in Acer rubrum 'October Brilliance'.

Horticulture companies sometimes trademark different names for cultivars as in the ever popular Knockout™ rose. Knockout™ is the trademark name but the cultivar name is 'Radrazz'.

If you know Rhododendron, Aster, Magnolia, and Iris you are already on your way to recognizing botanic names. Next week we tackle botanic name pronunciations.

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