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About Plant Names

Botanical names may seem like a barricade separating people from plants. Why aren't comfortable English names good enough?

First, many common names refer to more than one plant. The names 'bluebell' and 'laurel', for example, are each applied to several completely different plants. Common names vary by region and change over time. Also, one plant may have several common names.

By contrast, each plant has only one official and unique botanical name (except for the problem described below). If you are looking for or talking about a particular plant and want to be sure, you need to know its botanical name.

It's as easy to get comfortable with scientific names as it is to drive. What may seem shaky at first will become second nature as your experience and enjoyment of plants develops.

Pronouncing botanical names may seem harder than remembering them. This, too, gets easy with time. Some books will help, but simply conversing with other plant people is the best way to learn the language. Not all people pronounce plant names the same; use the pronunciation you feel most comfortable with.

Botanical names tell us something about the plant. They commemorate people (douglasii for botanist David Douglas, Washingtonia for George Washington) or places (japonica = 'Japanese', californica= 'from California', atlantica= 'from the Atlas Mountains') or describe attributes (caerulea ='blue', grandis= 'large').

The system of scientific names for plants and animals is the work of 18th Century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus and is based on sexual characteristics. The creation of new botanical names is governed by international convention. The governing bodies meet every 10 years and make adjustments to the rules.

Meanwhile, botanists are constantly studying plants and, more often than we would like, finding reasons to change botanical names. After such a change is proposed, a plant may circulate for a long time under more than one botanical name. If most professionals agree with a proposed new name, it will gradually (over many years) become the official one.

The old one, though, will survive in older books and catalogs (and in memory), causing some confusion. These old names are called 'synonyms'. The more helpful books and catalogs list these with cross-references. Our catalog will eventually include them. The plant kingdom is divided into a hierarchy of levels, each one a subdivision of the one above it, comparable to Country, State, County, City, Neighborhood, and so on:

* Kingdom (not important here)
* Phylum (not important here)
* Class (not important here)
* Order (not important here)

Definitions with Examples

Botanical Term
Family - a group of related genera.
The names usually end in 'aceae' (Rosaceae, the rose family). There are a few families which are still sometimes seen under their old names, which end in 'ae'
Palm family:
Palmae, which has been renamed Arecaceae.
Genus - a group of related species. The name of the genus is always capitalized.
Abies grandis
Species - a group of plants that are consistently very similar and normally cross only with members of the same species. The species name is never capitalized today, but in some older books certain species names are capitalized. Trachycarpus fortunei
Subspecies - a group within a species having one or more characteristics different from the typical for the species. These are such things as flower form, leaf shape, overall plant size, etc. and are often specific to a region, elevation, soil type, climate, etc. The subspecies name is in lower case and preceded by "ssp". Cistus laurifolius (ssp atlanticus)
Variety - a group within a species showing one or more minor variations from the normal. These could include flower color, leaf shape, height, etc. and usually occur on the occasional plant anywhere in the population. The variety name is in lower case, preceded by a "v". Corylus cornuta v californica
Form - one or more plants within a species having one minor characteristic that is different, usually a color or shape. The form name is in lower case, preceded by an "f". Eucalyptus sideroxylon f rosea

The cross of two plants from different species or, rarely, from different genera.
1. If the cross is between two species, and the resulting hybrid has not been given its own name, the plant is identified by combining the two species names with a multiplication sign (on this website the letter x is used).
2. If the hybrid has been given a special botanical name, the name is similar to that of a species, but with a multiplication sign between the genus and species.
3. If the plant is a cultivar arising from a hybrid, the name is similar to that of a regular cultivar but with a multiplication sign between the genus and species.
4. The hybrid between two genera has a name formed from those of the two parent genera, with a multiplication sign at the beginning.

1. Arctostaphylos columbiana x A. hookeri

2. Erica x darleyensis

3. Berberis x stenophylla 'Irwinii'

4. xCupressocyparis leylandii

Cultivar (cultivated variety) - any plant that is propagated, usually asexually, because of its unique and desirable characteristics. A cultivar normally starts with a single plant that exhibits these traits: larger flowers, tastier fruits, columnar form, variegated foliage, etc. All offspring are identical because they are propagated asexually. Older cultivar names may be in Latin, but newer ones must be in a modern language. They are capitalized and enclosed in single quotes. Calluna vulgaris 'Beoley Gold'
Salix alba 'Sericea'

-- authored by Michael Lee, May 2003