Most of the time we refer to plants by their common names, and if we could we would use them all the time. They are easy to remember, easy to pronounce, and they are familiar to us. Still, there are times when common names aren’t good enough: some plants have no common name, and there are times when common names change from region to region. There are even cases where a common name for a plant in one region is the same as a common name for a different plant in another region. Lastly, you may need to look up information on a plant, only to find the reference book has plants listed by their so-called Latin names. That’s when you’ll need to use proper botanical plant names.
We aren’t going to provide a list of botanical plant names. What we will do is briefly explain the botanical naming system to give you a working knowledge of it.
The botanical plant naming system, developed by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th Century, is called a binomial classification system, a big phrase that means that the plants have two-word names. The first word picks out the plant’s genus, the generic group of plants that your plant belongs to (such as all Maple trees represented by the Genus name “Acer”), and it is always a capitalized noun. The second word identifies the plant species. A species is a subset of a genus which includes all plants of a particular kind (for instance, all sugar maples or in latin “Acer saccharum”), and the species name will be an uncapitalized adjective. The species name is usually descriptive in that it will tell you something about a particular habit or trait that a plant may have.
Example: Juniperus horizontalis (Creeping Juniper) The genus (Juniperus) identifies the plant as a juniper, and the species (horizontalis) describes the plant according to its horizontal spreading habit.
You may find a few variations on the basic plant name:
A botanical plant name with two names separated by an ‘x’ indicates a hybrid which is a cross between two different plants.
Example: Abelia x grandiflora (Glossy Abelia)
The initials ‘var’ after the name indicate a natural variant of the plant.
Example: Salvia azurea var. grandiflora (Blue Sage)
Single quotation marks around a plant name or the initials ‘cv’ indicate a cultivated variety.
Example: Dicentra spectabilis ‘alba’ (White Bleeding Heart)
The terms ‘variety’ and ‘cultivated variety’ are often used interchangeably even though they technically have slightly different definitions. They are used to further distinguish or describe a subset of a species which has been singled out for a particularly desirable quality. For example, a cultivar or variety could have enhanced hardiness, a longer bloom time or a unique color.