When selecting plants, one of the questions is why does the same kind of plant have so many different names? What’s the difference between a botanical name, a scientific name, a Latin name and a common name?
The science of plant and animal naming and categorization is known as taxonomy. The words binomial nomenclature are used to depict the scientific method of assigning two part (genus/species) names to all living things, universally. Botany is the study of plant identification, culture, natural origin and habitat, morphological structure and such. Of course, the flora in every state includes invasive exotic plants and just plain weeds, but also a vast array of very desirable plants — be they native or exotic, they are nonetheless appropriate and useful in uncountable ways.
So, why does all this jargon all sound “Greek to me?” Some of the names are actually of Greek origin. Latin, although no longer spoken in its’ holistic form, is the origin of all the romance languages…Spanish, French, Italian, etc. Word origin is a study in itself and the aforementioned languages, as well as English, have many similarities — at least when written. Some plant names are deemed “Latinized.” One such example would be Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Hahnii’, Birds’ Nest Snake Plant, wherein a person’s last name, Hahn, had letters added to it. For the most part, however, botanical plant names are very descriptive of features of the exact plant, in comparison to others which are very closely related. An example of this is Magnolia grandiflora, Southern Magnolia, which has very large flowers compared to other species in the genus Magnolia.
King Phillip Came Over For Green Stamps is a simple expression that can be used to remember the first letter of the key classification terms.
Kingdom: Plant or animal (subkingdom, superdivision and division are related terms.)
Phyllum: A group of classes. A very broad category of plants.
Class: A group of orders.
Order: A group of families.
Family: A group of genera (‘genus’) that share similar flower or inflorescence structure. The term family is often used very loosely, albeit erroneously, to denote various related groups of plants. An example would be the Grass family, Graminae or Poaceae, which includes all the types of true grasses. Another example is the Rose family, Rosaceae, which includes many unlikely members such as strawberry, apple, peach, pear, plum, cherry, hawthorn and many more common plants.
Genus: A group of species. This part always begins with a capital letter and is underlined.
Species (a.k.a. Specific Epithet): The precise organism. This part follows the genus name — both making up the binomial scientific name — and is never capitalized and always underlined. A species name is generally very descriptive of the plants anatomical features, aroma, native origin, shape or other aspects that distinguish it from other species within the same genus.
To further narrow down the plant types within a species, the following terms are sometimes added beyond the species names. They may be likened to breeds of a species of domestic animals.
Subspecies: A naturally occurring member of a species having slight but specific and consistent differences from most members of that species.
Variety: Slightly different from the species and found in nature. This part is never capitalized. The term variety is also used very loosely and often erroneously.
Cultivar: A cultivated variety. This part is always capitalized, underlined and denoted in single parentheses. Usually, these are basically clones, propagated by non-seed methods, such as cuttings.
Hybrid: Cross between two species or two genera by pollination and growing the resulting seeds that develop in the fruit from the fertilized flower. The names given to these effectively become cultivar names.
An entire scientific/botanical/Latin name is always underlined. Mostly, family; genus; species and “variety” names are utilized in the nursery and landscape trades and by gardeners.
Hopefully, after reading this, you now have a much better understanding of all that plant jargon. Thankfully, there are countless references and resources to help us better understand plants. A good start to researching specific plant information is to have the correct botanical name.
Gregg O’Connor is project manager — landscape for Charlotte County Public Works. He holds an A.A.S. in Ornamental Horticulture from S.U.N.Y. Alfred, and a B.S. in Vocational-Technical Education/Agricultural Subjects from S.U.N.Y. Oswego. He has formerly served as Cornell University extension agent — horticulture, Charlotte Technical Center instructor — horticulture, technical director for a pest management company, and grounds superintendent for an upscale retirement community.