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Why We Use Botanical Names to Identify Plants

Hank the Garden Gnome Occasionally, I am asked why I use botanical names for plants and shrubs,
rather than simply calling them by their common name.
To answer the question with an example, let me ask you a question....
Do you have an Elephant ear somewhere in your plant collection?
Is it an Alocasia odora, Colocasia esculenta, Philodendron bipinnatifidum, Haemanthus albiflos, or an Acacia dunnii?
These plants are all commonly called Elephant Ears!
Common names can vary from country to country, and region to region.
The botanical names are used worldwide, and are established by the
"International Code of Botanical Nomenclature".
Unless you knew the botanical name, it might be hard to figure out which Elephant Ear you were talking about.
  • The Elephant Ear plant, Alocasia odora is a tropical plant from Borneo, and Asia.
  • The Elephant Ear plant, Colocasia esculenta is the common Caladium, grown from bulbs.
  • The Elephant Ear plant, Philodendron bipinnatifidumis the common houseplant, Philodendron selloum.
  • The Elephant Ear plant, Haemanthus albiflos is a bulb grown plant, belonging to the same family as an Amaryllis.
  • The Elephant Ear plant, Acacia dunnii is a 20 foot tree, native to parts of the United States, as well as Australia.

Naming Plant Names

You don't have to learn Latin to grow beautiful plants. However, knowing a little bit about how and why plants are given their names, can be valuable knowledge when you are looking for growing advice or when you are shopping for a plant.
Plants are given botanical names based on an international system for naming each individual plant. This system was developed by Carl Linnaeus, an 18th century botanist.
Today, this cataloging is done by the group of botanists who analyze the characters and attributes of plants, and put them into the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.
Plants are given a first name called the "genus," and a second name called the "species".
Additional words may be added to the name to describe further subdivisions. This system provides people from throughout the world a universally accepted name for each single plant. The words used are a mixture of Latin, Greek, and native names.

Definition of Plant prefixes and suffixes

  • A genus refers to a group of plants which share certain structural characteristics. The genus name may come from mythology, literature, people, places, or something the plant resembles.
  • The species name usually refers to a place where the plant is native, the plant's appearance, or the name of the person credited with discovering it. Individual species are precisely identified by analyzing the flowers and seeds of each plant. The determining criteria might be the number of petals on the flower, or a certain characteristic of the seed.
  • Varieties are subdivisions of species. They refer to naturally occurring changes or mutations which create a distinctively different plant in appearance. This often refers to flower color, or variations in growing habits.
  • Cultivars refers to varieties which, although they occurred naturally, can only be replicated by asexual propagation and human intervention by cloning.
  • Hybrid refers to new varieties of plants, which were created by humans through cross pollination of separate varieties. The naming of hybrids is usually done by the creator of the hybrid, and is proceeded by an 'x'.
For a quick example to illustrate how different terms are used in the naming process, I will use Blue bells of Scotland, Campanula rotundifolia.
  • campan- means 'bell' and refers to the bell shaped flowers.
  • rotund- means round, foli means leaves. (rotundifolia = round-leaved)
  • When a new variety was discovered which had white flowers, rather than blue, it was given the designation 'alba' (meaning white) added at the end of the name.
Campanula rotundifolia 'alba' would therefore describe a plant with white, bell shape flowers, and round leaves.
It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible for an average gardener to memorize all of the root words for botanical names.
However, knowing a few of the more commonly used roots will help you to decipher some of the plant names.
The next time you visit the nursery, make a game of it, and see what you can figure out about a plant, just using the root words within the botanical name.
You will surely impress your friends!

Flower / foliage colors

aurea, aureo golden
alba, albo white
glauca blue
rubra red
purpurea, atropurpurea purple
coccineus scarlet
croceus yellow

Leaf shapes / forms

angustifolius narrow leaves
acerifolius maple-like leaves
aquifolius spiny leaves
buxifolius boxwood-like leaves
ilicifolius holly-like leaves
parvifolius small leaves
macrophylla large leaves
heterophylla varied size leaves

Place of origin / discovery

africanus native to Africa
alpinus native to alpine regions
campestris native to plains and fields
canadensis native to Canada
canariensis native to the Canary Islands
chinesis native to China
japonicus native to Japan

Plant parts / descriptions

dendron tree-like
flora, florum, florus flowers
phyllus, phylla, folia leaves
baccatus having berries
campan bell
rotund round
cordatus heart shaped
edulis edible
floridus free flowering
fulgens shiny
grandi large, showy
macro large
micro small
officinalis medicinal
plumosus feathery
rugosus wrinkled, rough

Plant shapes / habits

altus tall
arboreus tree-like
compactus compact, dense
contortus twisted
elegans slender, willowy
humilis small, low growing
nanus dwarf
procumbens trailing
repens, reptans creeping
scandens climbing
marginata variegated margins
variegata varigated foliage
bicolor two color blend of variegation
tricolor three color blend of variegation
pendula weeping growth
zebrinus striped