Scientific names of plants and what they can tell you

Have you ever looked at our seed catalog or shopped in our nursery and wondered why would a gardener even care whether they are growing Brassica oleracea or Zea mays? Isn’t it enough to just know if it’s cabbage or corn? And why should we care what the scientific name for a poppy or a lupine is, so long as it’s the right color for the garden?

How It Works

Latin names, more formally know as Binomial Nomenclature, are usually formed of two words. The first word is the genus name, and the second is the species name. Sometimes there is an additional notation such as a subspecies or variety. This is similar to your own name versus your cousins’ names, with “last name” written first like names on a roll-call list. By looking at the genus name such as Brassica, you will know Brassica rapa is a cousin to Brassica oleracea, and so they will share some characteristics in their appearance and growth habits.

Why It’s Helpful

This is useful for several reasons. When it comes to planning your garden, crop rotation is highly recommended for many plant families, including Brassica and Allium. It is a good idea for other plants in the same families too. By looking at the Latin names of what you grew last year, you will be able to know at a glance if it is in the same family as something you’ll be growing this year, and thus if you should plant it somewhere different. For example, if you grew cabbage last year and are planning on growing cauliflower this year, you’ll see that they are both Brassica and should be planted in a different spot in the garden. It is also helpful if you are trying to find a specific plant, especially if it is an unusual one, and the common name on your shopping list is different than the one on the seed pack or plant label. Many plants have several common names, some plants have no common names, and some plants have the same common names as other plants. This can make buying what you want confusing and complicated! By cross-checking with the Latin name, you’ll be able to determine if it is the same plant after all. For example, if you wanted to plant the delicious French heirloom “corn salad” or “lamb’s lettuce,” you would not recognize it listed under the name “mache”. But they are all different names for the same plant Valerianella locusta. Finally, it can be enlightening to understand what the Latin names themselves mean.

It’s All Greek, er, Latin to Me

A species name may indicate where the plant came from, who discovered it, or something about the plant that is useful to know such as what it will look like in your garden or what growing conditions it prefers. Here’s some common Latinized descriptions to look for: Color descriptions: This may refer to any part of the plant but most commonly describes the flower. Alba = white Pallida = pale or cream colored Negra = black Rubra = red Coccinea = red Punica = red Sanguinea = blood-red Purpurea = dark pink Phoenicea = purple Rosea = rose-pink Argentea = silvery Aurantiacav = orange Aurea = golden or yellow Chrysantha = yellow Flava = yellow Lutea = yellow Viridis = green Azurea = blue Caerulea = blue Splendens = “splendid,” vibrantly colored Leaves Angustifolia = narrow Tenuifoia = narrow Digitata = lobed Lanceolata = lance-shaped Pinnata = pinnate Rotundifolia = round Latifolia = wide Longifolia = long Macrophylla = large Microphylla = small Parvifolia = small Millefolia = “thousands of leaves”, abundant leaves Polyphylla = abundant leaves Paucifolia = few leaves Flowers Campanulata = bell-shaped Pendula = hanging Umbellata = flower cluster is an umbel Foetida = has a bad odor Odorata = has a good odor Grandiflora = large flowers Macrantha = large flowers Parviflora = small flowers Micrantha = small flowers Densiflora = dense-flowered Flora plena = double-flowered Longiflora = long flowers Multiflora = many flowers Pauciflora = few flowers Habitat/growing conditions Arvensis = in fields Campestris = in fields Lacustris = of lakes Maritima = coastal, near the sea Montana = in mountains Palustris = in marshes Rupestris = in hills Saxatilis = in rocky areas Sylvestris = in woods and forests Alpina = from alpine regions Season (usually referring to bloom time): Praecox = early spring Vernalis = spring Autumnalis = autumn Hyemalis = winter Other characteristics of note: Macrorrhiza = large roots Majus = larger Minor = smaller Pygmaea = small Glabra = smooth Hirsuta = hairy Villosa = hairy Spicata = spiked Spinosa = spiny Maculata = spotted Nana = small Pumila = small Vulgaris = common Edulis = edible Esculenta = edible Officinalis = traditional herbal medicine Annua = annual Perennis = perennial You might notice as you look at more scientific names of plants that some words look similar but with a different ending. This is because, like in Spanish, French, and many other languages, Latin names have a male, female and neutral form that must match the “gender” of the genus. All you need to remember is that alba, albus, and album all mean “white.” Learn a little Latin and discover something new about your garden!

Resources

Echinacea purpurea photo by Daniel Schwen

Lavandula angustifolia photo by Manfred Werner

Kalmia latifolia photo by Cliff

Epacris longiflora photo by John Tann at the Heathcote National Park in Australia

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