Botanically Speaking: How to Read Botanical Names

Categories|Garden 101

While common names for plants are charming and often colorful, they vary from place to place. Binomial nomenclature, on the other hand, is the lingua franca of plant nerds everywhere. Learn to read botanical names, and you can make yourself understood at every nursery and botanical garden.

The Name Game

An eighteenth-century botanist named Carl Linnaeus popularized the binomial system, which short-circuited the incredibly unwieldy names common before him. Linnaeus’s system breaks the name into two components. The first is the genus (the general) and the second is the species (the specific). Here’s how it works:

The species name: Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender)

The genus is Lavandula, the species is angustifolia. But Lavandula dentata (French lavender), which is part of the same genus, is a different species. That’s good to know, because L. angustifolia will sail through an Indiana winter, but L. dentata is toast as soon as the frost rolls in.

The variety or cultivar name: Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’

The name in single quotes is the variety. Sometimes you’ll hear that name referred to as the cultivar, which is short for “cultivated variety.”

If you learn just this much about botanical names, you’ll be well positioned to shop for and purchase exactly the plants you want.

But Wait! There is more!

The names themselves offer you a clue about the plants. Most are taken from Greek or Latin rootwords, so you can often puzzle out certain characteristics of the plant based on the name.

Lavendula angustifolia ‘Munstead’

“Angustus” means narrow, and “folius” is leafed, so “angustifolia” means narrow-leafed. The leaves on an English lavender are narrow. “Dentata” on the other hand, mean “toothed,” and a French lavender has leaves with jagged edges that look like teeth.

Handy, no? Here are a few of the root words that we find particularly useful. Word endings that describe parts of the plant

  • -andrus = anthers
  • -anthus, -flora =flowers
  • -carpa = fruit
  • -caulis = stem
  • -cephalus =head
  • -flora = flower
  • -folia, -phylla = leaf
  • -frons = frond
  • -phylla = leaf
  • -podus = stem

Colors

  • alba = white
  • aureo  = gold (as in Sedum aureum)
  • bicolor = having two colors
  • cardinalis = bright red (as in Lobelia cardinalis)
  • flavus = yellow (Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ is a yellow-stemmed variety)
  • melano = dark (as in Aronia melanocarpa)
  • niger = black (as in Helleborus niger)
  • pallida = pale (as in Echinacea pallida)
  • ruber = red (Panicum virgatum ‘Rubrum’ is a red-bladed variety)

Habit

  • compactus = small
  • officinalis = of the pharmacopoeia (a plant with ‘officinalis’ in the name was at one time used as medicine)
  • repens = creeping
  • prostratus = lying flat but not rooting

Place names

  • australis = southern, as in Baptisia australis
  • canadensis = from Canada or northeastern US, and likely to be native to Indiana (as in Amelanchier canadenisis, Cercis canadensis)
  • sibericus = from Siberia
  • sinicus = from China
  • japonica = from Japan (as in Spirea japonica)
  • virginica = from Virginia

If you’d like to know more about botanical names, we recommend Latin for Gardeners, by Lorraine Harrison. Keep it by you when you leaf through plant catalogs, and you’ll be talking like a horticulturist in no time!