For gardeners, botanical Latin is a language worth learning

Susan Howell

If you have been thumbing by way of a gardening catalog or searching at a nursery, you’ve very likely noticed two names assigned to just about every plant, a popular name and a botanical name, the latter of which might browse like a sort of pretentious, unpronounceable gibberish.

Which is botanical Latin, and its objective is to assistance you confirm that the plant you bring household is what you intend to obtain.

The frequent title – frequently a cutesy marketing moniker – can get you into issues. That’s due to the fact frequent names are just nicknames for plants. A single popular name can be shared by lots of crops. And just one plant can have several widespread names.

Confusion generally ensues.

The perennial cranesbill, for occasion, is the correct Geranium, whilst the annual container plant that carries the prevalent name geranium is truly a Pelargonium. And dependent on where by you reside, you could know my most loved perennial as blazing star or gayfeather. But contact it Liatris spicata, and absolutely everyone in just about every area and region will know which plant you’re speaking about.

This identify game was initial resolved in the 1700s by Swedish botanist, zoologist and doctor Carolus Linnaeus. His works “Systema Naturae” and “Fundamenta Botanica” produced procedures for classifying and naming crops in botanical Latin — a language he manufactured up, and with which all gardeners need to have at the very least some familiarity.

Linnaeus devoted his daily life to assigning each and every plant and animal of his time a two-element, or binomial, identify consisting of a genus and species, often centered on the look of their reproductive parts. As you could possibly imagine, some of those names elevated 18th-century eyebrows.

Consider that avocado is the Aztec word for testicle. Vainilla, the orchid pod from which vanilla comes, is derived from the Latin term “vaina,” which signifies vagina (have you ever definitely appeared at an orchid flower?).

Linnaeus’ Intercontinental Code of Botanical Nomenclature dictates that a plant title commence with a capitalized genus, adopted by a reduce-circumstance species, then both a selection (if normally occurring), cultivar (if designed by a breeder) or hybrid name (if it is a cross between two crops, indicted by an “x”).

The code is controlled by the Global Botanical Congress, which has been convening each 6 several years considering that 1900 to appraise and make a decision on naming issues raised by new genetic investigate and scientific findings. Immediately after all, Linnaeus didn’t have a microscope or DNA screening lab, which would have helped definitively establish which crops have been associated.

The Congress, which satisfies subsequent in Madrid in July 2024, utilizes these contemporary resources to choose which plants to reclassify or rename.

Bleeding hearts, the moment officially named Dicentra spectabilis, were moved into the newly created Lamprocapnos genus several decades back, and snapdragons, originally in the Antirrhinum genus, were being transferred into the plantain loved ones, Plantaginaceae, alongside with Digitalis, Hebe and Penstemon.

But no person regulates typical names, and that can convert plant identification into a Tower of Babel, wherever Rudbeckia hirta is known to some as black-eyed Susan, to others as yellow-oxeye daisy and to other individuals nevertheless as gloriosa daisy.

And the opportunity for error doesn’t stop there, as when the same typical identify is shared by a number of plants. Talk to a backyard garden middle personnel for a snowball bush, and you could possibly stroll out with Hydrangea arborescens or Viburnum plicatum. It’s a crapshoot.

So it pays to research up — or at least do a small research ahead of purchasing plants or swapping seeds.

Plug a prevalent name into the Royal Horticultural Society’s totally free on-line Garden Plant Finder ( isles/vegetation/lookup-sort ) and get a listing of pertinent botanical names -– or vice versa. The detailed suppliers are British, but the correct terminology adheres to no borders.

And if you definitely want to nerd out, eliminate oneself in the Worldwide Plant Names Index (, a collaboration involving The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew The Harvard College Herbaria, and The Australian Countrywide Herbarium.


Jessica Damiano writes standard gardening columns for The Linked Push. She publishes the award-successful Weekly Grime E-newsletter. Sign up here for weekly gardening ideas and assistance.


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