How to decipher a botanical plant name

Understanding the fundamentals of how botanical names are created can help you better understand them.

How to decipher a botanical plant name

Common names for trees, shrubs and flowers vary from region to region. Only the botanical or variety name ensures that you're getting exactly the plant you're looking for.

The basis of botanical names

Because they're a combination of Greek, Latin and other languages, botanical names may take some getting used to, but they are the best means of precisely identifying plants. A plant's scientific name has several main parts.

Genus name

Genus name is first, indicating the plant group. It is written with an initial capital letter and is often in italic type, as in Primula.

Species name

Species name is next. It is the name of a specific plant within a genus group and doesn't begin with a capital letter, as in Primula japonica.

Cultivar name

Cultivar name may follow the genus and species names.

  • This name starts with a capital letter and is usually in Roman type and single quotation marks. For example, the full name of the whitecrested iris is Iris cristata 'Alba,' while the pyramidal Chinese juniper is Juniperus chinensis 'Pyramidalis.'
  • An "x" in the middle of a name means the plant is the result of a cross between species.

The person who discovered the plant

The surname of the person who discovered a plant is often used for the species name and given a Latin suffix indicating possession: -ii or -i for a man and -ae for a woman.

  • For example, Prunus sargentii, or Sargent's cherry, was named for dendrologist C. S. Sargent.
  • Phlox henryae, or Henry phlox, was named for botanist Mary Gibson Henry.

Plants' special characteristics

Plants' special characteristics can also become part of their names.

The endings -issimus, -issima and -issimum indicate the superlative degree and are used in species names to describe a particular attribute.

  • Lonicera fragrantissima (winter honeysuckle), for example, is exceptionally fragrant.
  • Salix x elegantissima (Thurlow weeping willow) is one of the most graceful specimens.

The names of places are often part of a plant's botanical name.

  • The China rose, for instance, is Rosa chinensis, while the Siberian iris is Iris sibirica.

Latin translations

The words found in plant names often describe a plant trait. Knowing what these terms mean helps you understand botanical nomenclature and makes it easier to visualize a particular plant.

alba = white

aura = golden foliage

contorta = twisted

edulis = edible

elata = tall

grandiflora = large-flowered

grandifolia = large-leafed

japonica = from Japan

lutea = yellow

maculata = spotted

nana = dwarf

occidentals = from the West

odorata = scented

orientalis = from the East

pendular = weeping

purpurea = purple

repens = creeping

rugosa = wrinkled

scandens = climbing

sempervirens = evergreen

spicata = flowers in spikes

strict = upright

sylvestris = from the woods

tomentosa = downy

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