Louise Roesser earned her BS in Ornamental Horticulture and is presently pursuing a Master’s in Horticulture.

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Botanical Names
by Louise Roesser    

Do botanical names cause you confusion, get you tongue-tied or seem unnecessary? There actually are reasons for the scientific mumble jumble. In addition to gaining an understanding of the scientific names of plants, knowing just a little “Latinese” will place you a step higher in the gardening world.

Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707 to 1778) revolutionized the plant classification system during the 18th century when Latin was the most widely used international language of science and scholarship. Known as the “father of modern plant and animal classification,” he based his system on structural (morphological) similarities and differences, particularly regarding the reproductive organs, which are least likely to change over time. Linnaeus began his classification system by separating the plant kingdom into major divisions, based on evolution.

The example below shows how the pink flowering dogwood is classified.

Kingdom: Plantae (the plant kingdom)

Division: Trachaeophyta (vascular plants)

Class: Angiospermae (angiosperm – a flowering plant or one that produces seed in ovaries)

Subclass: Dicotyledonae (dicot – a plant having two cotyledons: the first leaflike structures that form at the first node on a stem)

Order: Cornales

Family: Cornaceae

Genus: Cornus

Specific epithet or species: Cornus florida (flowering dogwood)

Variety: Cornus florida var. rubra (pink flowering dogwood)      

If we look beyond the intimidating Latin names (often incorporating Greek), we begin to see a very simple classification system. The naming of plants is based on a latin two-word “binomial” system – bi meaning two, nomen meaning name. The genus (plural – genera) is listed first, always capitalized and consisting of a group of one or more plants that share one or more characteristics. For example, all plants in the genus Acer are types of maples and are found in the Aceraceae family. A generic name is either a noun or a word treated as such with a masculine (ends in -us, -er, -is or -r), feminine (ends in -a, -ra, -is or -ris) or neutral (ends in -um, -rum, -is or -re) gender. Exceptions are plants with endings that are the same for all three genders (-ans, -ens, -x and -or).

‘Audray Bicolor Rose’ globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa ‘Audray Bicolor Rose’)

‘Luxuriant’ bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia ‘Luxuriant’)

Epithet, Species

The specific epithet, also known as the species, is a group of plants within the genus that possess certain differences but are capable of possible interbreeding. Written as the second part of a scientific name and always lowercase, the species can often convey to us more specific information about a particular plant, such as size (usually relative to other species of the genus), growth habit, color or habitat. Acer rubrum is a red maple (rubrum meaning red), and Acer saccharum is a sugar maple (saccharum refers to sugar). Species that contain proper names usually indicate the collector or someone who has studied a particular plant. In the case of chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), the species name honors Gotthilf Henry Ernest Muhlenberg (1753-1815), a Lutheran minister and botanist from Pennsylvania. The species name can also indicate the origin of a plant, as with Camellia japonica (of Japan) and Cercis canadensis (the redbud), indicating it is from Canada.


The variety is a subgroup name for a plant that differs only slightly from the species. It further delineates a specific plant and follows the genus and species. Varieties are indicated by “var.,” as in Rosa gallica var. officinalis. A botanical variety will sexually breed true to form in nature.


Dragon Wing begonia (Begonia x hybrida ‘Bepared’)

Cultivars (a combination of the words cultivated and variety) are plants that are bred for their desirable characteristics and must be maintained by humans through controlled sexual (seeds) or asexual propagation. Cultivar names are either English or Latinized and are indicated by an enclosure in single quotes as in Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’. Like the species, the cultivar may offer descriptive information that may help gardeners when choosing a particular plant.

A cross between two or more species is a hybrid and is denoted with an “x” as in Abelia x grandiflora. (Hint: This Abelia species has larger flowers than others.) Did you guess that? If so, you are catching on.

The naming of plants is based on a set of rules by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), which was first published in 1930. Botanists make plant name changes only when necessary to conform to the code.

What Do Those Words Mean?

Descriptive Prefixes          

albi-, leuco- – white
alterni- – alternate
angusti- – narrow
brevi- – short
grandi- – large
hetero- – differing
lati- – broad
longi- – long
micro- – small
macro- – large, long
rotundi- – round
semper- – always

Designating Plant Habitat             

aquaticus – water
arvensis – in fields
maritimus – by the sea
palustris – in swamps
pratensis – in meadows
sativus – cultivated

Designating Plant Appearance

gracilis – graceful, slender
humilus – low
procumbens – trailing
pubescens – downy hair surface
pumilus, nanus – dwarf
repans, reptans – creeping
tuberosus – forming tubers

Designating Plant Parts

caulis – stem
carpus – fruit
florus, anthos – flower
folium, phyllon – leaf

Designating Plant Geography

americanus – Americas
australis – southern
borealis – northern
canadensis – Canada
carolinianus – Carolinas
chinensis, sinensis – China
occidentalis – western
orientalis – eastern
virginianus – Virginias

Designating Color

albus – white
atropurpureus – dark purple
aureus – golden
bicolor – of two colors
coccineus – scarlet
concolor – same color both sides
discolor – different color each side
flavus, luteus – yellow
glaucus – whitish with a bloom
niger – black
ruber – red
sanguineus – blood red
variegatus – variegated
viridis – green

Designating Plant Attributes

annuus – annual
communis, vulgaris – common
officinalis – medicinal
perennis – perennial
pulchellus – beautiful
rugosus – wrinkled
setaceus – bristle-like
spectabilis – showy, handsome
vernus – spring flowering

Why Not Keep It Simple?

So why not just use common or vernacular names? They are usually much easier to remember and pronounce, but there are problems associated with them. A plant may have several common names, depending on the country it is grown in, section of the country or even among different garden clubs. Without botanical names, it would be impossible to keep plants in order, to tell one from the other or even to order your favorite from a catalog. Also, if you are inquiring about a plant in another country, the botanical name is the same all over the world.

When it comes to selecting and purchasing plants for your home and landscape, how can botanical names be useful? Begin by becoming familiar with genera of common landscape plants such as Ilex (hollies), Quercus (oaks) and Juniperus (junipers) to name a few. Next, familiarize yourself with descriptive species names.

Gold-edged winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’)

One of my favorite winter-blooming shrubs is Daphne odora (winter daphne). With its fragrant purple-pink flowers, winter daphne clearly lives up to its specific epithet. The cultivar Daphne odora ‘Alba’ bears white to creamy white flowers. Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ bears leaves with narrow, irregular yellow margins and pink flower buds that open to pale pink or white.

If you are looking for an accent tree or shrub for your landscape, you might want to try Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’ (origin – China; torulosa meaning twisted). Looking for a colorful evergreen dwarf shrub? Nandina domestica ‘Nana Purpurea’ (dwarf purple) might be just the right cultivar for you.

Although gardeners still use common names every day, occasionally there is a real need to use a little “Latinese.”


Dictionary of Plant Names - Allen J. Coombes

Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners - William T. Stearn

The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants - Christopher Brickell and Judith D. Zuk

Making Sense of Botanical Names - R.P. Madsen and A. McDaniel


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2005 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Louise Roesser.


Posted: 07/16/18   RSS | Print


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