Gardening Topic for September 2008
What's in a Name?

Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association

By Doris Mittasch, Master Gardener 


My recollections of high school Latin include Miss Petter, tapping her toe and clapping her hands as the class recited a rhythmic declension of the word “this.” Remarkably, I can still recite it all these years later.

But Miss Petter’s success in helping this student understand classical Latin declensions and navigate the stormy seas with Aeneas didn’t fully prepare me for botanical Latin. Scientific names of plants have been, well, like Greek to me.

One reason may be that even though botanical names are often referred to as Latin names, the basis of a plant name can be any word, in any language. Many scientific plant names are Latin in origin (Hedera, Linum, Nepeta), but many others commemorate people or places ( Hosta, Jeffersonia, Rudbeckia, Byzantina, Deutschland), or may, in fact, be Greek (Delphinium, Hibiscus, Myrtus, Paeonia).

What is derived from Latin is the formation and spelling of the names. For example, the early 18th-century Swedish explorer and scientist Carl von Linne — the creator of the taxonomic system we use today — is better known by most of us by the “Latinized” version of his name, Carolus Linnaeus. Under his naming system plants are classified by physical similarities — first by family, then within a family by genus, then within a genus by species. Botanical names are used around the world—a global language that ensures specificity and accuracy in any plant’s identification.

The botanical name of a plant usually consists of two words that are written in italics. The first word is capitalized in print and denotes the genus to which the plant belongs. The second word is lower-cased in print and identifies the plant’s species (a group within the genus that share characteristics).

These binomial, or two-part, names for plants offer descriptions of their outstanding features. Achillea millefolium, for example, has a genus that commemorates Achilles of Homeric legend (he used it on the battlefield to treat his men’s wounds); the species name means “thousand leaved,” a good description of the fine, feathery foliage of this perennial favorite.

Sometimes, a third name follows the genus and species names, denoting a sub-group of plants that differ from others within the species. If this third name is “Latinized” and written in italics it is a variety that occurs in nature. Most often, this third name on a plant’s ID tag is capitalized, enclosed within single quotation marks and not italicized, and describes a cultivated variety (or cultivar) produced by human efforts, such as Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Loraine Sunshine’. A cultivar name may describe a feature of the plant, may give recognition to the nursery or person who developed the cultivar, or be named for people or places.

Certain words name parts of plants, such as anthos or flora (meaning flower), folius or phyllos (foliage), or caulis (stem) and are often combined with words acting as adjectives, creating clues to a plant’s appearance. You’ll find some descriptive species names again and again as you browse a nursery catalog. The word endings may vary to agree in Latin with the gender of the genus name, but you’ll recognize the root words. There are those that describe


Black ater, ebenus, nigra
Blue azurea, caeruleus, cyanea
Purple porphyreus, purpurea
Red cardinalis, coccineus, erythraeus, flammeus, haema, rubra, sanguineus
Silvery aregenteus, argyraeus
White alba, candida, leuc, nivea, virgineus
Yellow chryseus, citrina, crocea, flava, luridus, luteus, sulphurea

Habit or form:

Bearded barbatus
Bell Shaped campana, codon/kodon,
Broad, flat platys
Climbing liana
Creeping prostata, repens
Dwarf nana, pumilus
Graceful gracilis
Large amplus, grandis, macro, magnus, mega
Prickly echinos
Spotted guttatus, maculata
Spreading patens, patula
Sun helios
Tall altus, elegans, excelsus
Tree-like arborea
Twisted contorta
Weeping pendula
Winged alatus
Wooly, downy candicans, erio, tomentosa
Wrinkled rugosa
Winter Flowering hiemalis
Spring Flowering vernalis
Summer Flowering aestivus
Fall Flowering autumnalis
Preferring Acid Soil oxyphilus
Preferring Lime Soil gypsophilus

Habitat or Origin:

Carpathian Mountains carpaticus
China chinensis
England anglica
Japan japonica
North America canadensis
Bogs palustris, limosus
Fields arvensis, campestris
Mountains montana
River banks riparia
Seaside maritimus
Woodlands sylvestris

See how these names now make sense: Platycodon grandiflorus ‘Fuji Blue’, Echinacea purpurea, Campanula carpatica ‘Blue Clips’, Paeonia lactiflora, Gypsophila repens ‘Alba’, Stachys byzantina ‘Helene von Stein’, Euphorbia maculata

Once we become familiar with its vocabulary, Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature is no longer a string of ancient syllables. It’s a descriptive language, telling us about plants’ origins, native habitats, uses, site and cultural preferences, or the appearance of their leaves, stems, or flowers. And even if we can’t always pronounce with confidence a plant’s genus and species, “Latin” names for plants help us communicate accurately about what our open fields, woodlands and gardens grow.

Allen J. Coombes, Dictionary of Plant Names. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2005.
Cyndy Haynes, “Latin Linguistics – A Useful Tool in Horticulture,” in Horticulture and Home Pest News, July 23, 1999,
Ames: Iowa: Iowa State University. Online at .
Bill Neal, Gardener’s Latin. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 2003.
Sherry Rindels, “Latin Names” in Horticultural and Home Pest News, April 7, 1995, Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University. Online at .
A.W. Smith, A Gardener’s Book of Plant Names. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963.

Achillea millefolium photo credit – USDA/William S. Justice @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database]; all others D. Mittasch

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Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association