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Plant Naming

Often when a knowledgeable gardener starts quoting plant names, the response is "how can you remember all those names?" or "where do they come from?". The answers are, with constant use and you pick them up one or two at a time, also the name is usually derived from the habit or origin of the plant.

The method of naming living things using 'Latinised' names was introduced to end the ambiguity of vernacular or common names, which can refer to different organisms depending on the country or region where they occur. The first person give plants a single universal name was Philip Miller the director of the Chelsea Physic Garden. He published the Gardeners Dictionary in 1731 which listed the names, descriptions and cultural conditions of plants, but not how they might be related to each other. All the names for a particular plant were given to remove confusion.

Plants and animals had latin names from early times, as much learning and writings were in the language, but these were descriptive and could be relatively long in order to distinguish them. For example:

Viola floribus radicalibus colollatis abortientibus caulinis apetalis seminiferis translates as 'the short-stemmed, free petaled fruiting violet'

A consistent system was first devised early in the eighteenth century by a Swede, Carl von Linné, who adopted a Latin name for himself - Linnaeus. He named over 7,700 plants in this way and published his Species Plantarum in 1753 which catalogued them with all the other names they had been known as before. The violet above became Viola mirabilis; another the Wood Sorrel with the longer descriptive name Oxalis powisternatis scaber uniflora became Oxalis acetosella

Plant names are usually descriptive, from the features of a plant (repens - creeping), who first discovered it (wilsonii), or its country of origin (lusitanica - Portugal). Since the names are not always based in Latin it is probably more accurate to describe it as the botanical, scientific or approved name, although it is usually written in a Latin form.
The "International Code of Botanical Nomenclature" is an agreement between botanists around the world to follow the Binomial System of naming which gives the Genera and Species of the plant. The International Congress of Nomenclature is the committee which meets every four years to decide on any additions or changes to the naming of organisms.
Every plant is given its own name, so there should not be any confusion when ordering plants for the garden. If common names were used and you asked for bluebells, you could get Campanula rotundifolia in Scotland, Hyacinthoides non-scripta in England or one of several Penstemon and Mertensia in North America.


Classification is the basis of the study of botany. The plant is first classified according to some physical characteristics, usually the flowers and fruit. This arrangement and classification of organisms is called taxonomy. The most important work done in founding a system of classification was carried out in the seventeenth century by John Ray (1627-1705). For centuries before his work, plants had been listed in various herbals for medicinal and sometimes mystical properties without any standardization or inter-relationship. Examining plant seeds Ray observed that some would split into two and the rest had one part. This was also related to the development of the seedling and the structure of the leaves. He called them Dicotyledon and Monocotyledon respectively. He also published works on the flora and fauna of Britain and Europe describing and classifying them. He was the first to define what is a species and laid down seven rules to use when classifying plants.
In his earlier career Linnaeus tried to introduce a system of classification using the reproductive parts of plants by counting the numbers of the male stamens and the female pistils. Not only was this too shocking a way to distinguish plants to his puritanical colleagues in England who led the world of botany at the time, it was inaccurate, as many plants with the same numbers of stamens and pistils are totally different. However, not to be left out he returned to Sweden and devised his Binomial System.

The table below shows a summary of the classification of part of the plant kingdom. Most of the plants of interest to gardeners are Spermatophytes or seed-bearers.

(seed-bearing plants)
(ovules not enclosed in an ovary)
eg. Cycads, Conifers
(ovules enclosed in an ovary)
Flowering plants
Seedling - two cotyledons present
Flower-parts, eg. petals in 4's or 5's
Herbaceous or woody stems
with vascular bundles forming a ring
usually broad leaves with branching veins
usually a taproot with lateral roots
Seedling - one cotyledon present
Flower-parts, eg. petals or stamens in 3's or 6's
Usually herbaceous stems
with vascular bundles throughout
usually narrow leaves with parallel veins
fibrous roots, arising from base of stem
eg. Taxaceae
eg. Rosaceae
eg. Iridaceae
eg. Taxus
eg. Prunus
eg. Iris
eg. baccata
eg. lucitanica
eg. sibirica

The seed are produced from ovules which are enclosed in the Angiosperms, or naked in the Gymnosperms.
The Angiosperms are divided into Dicotyledons which have a split seed producing two seed-leaves (cotyledons), and Monocotyledons which produce one seed-leaf. Other similarities of the two are given above. They are all further subdivided into Orders, Families, Genera and Species.
Families, eg. Rosaceae - the Rose family, contain many Genera which are similar in structure, eg. the Genus Prunus.
In turn there are many Species in the Genus Prunus, eg. P. lucitanica, P. laurocerasus and P. serrula.
The Lily Family, Iridaceae contains the Genus Iris which has the species sibirica


The name is in two parts (Binomial System), first the Genus starting with a capital letter followed by the Species, with the first letter in lower case, eg. Sorbus aria - common name Whitebeam. (In print the Genus and Species are usually set out in italics.)
  • The Genus name is often shortened to a capital letter if it has already been used and another Species in that Genus is referred to, eg. S. aucuparia - Mountain Ash or Rowan Tree.
  • The Species may be further divided into Subspecies (subsp. or ssp.), eg. Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii
  • Due to geographic and ecological differences, variations arise within a Species giving rise to a Varitey name (var.). A Variety is usually Latinised, written in italics and the abbreviation var. is sometimes included, eg. Geranium sanguinium var. striatum.
  • When this variation is due to selective breeding it is called a Cultivar (cv.). A Cultivar name is not usually Latinised and is printed in standard type, but with a capital letter, and it is placed in single inverted commas eg. Geranium cinereum 'Ballerina'. Often the Species name is left out and the Genus is followed by the Cultivar name, eg. Cotoneaster 'Autumn Fire'.
  • When hybridization occurs between two Species the name of the resulting plant contains elements of the parental names connected by an x, eg. Corokia x virgata.
  • Where the hybridization is between two Genera - a rare occurrence - the cross is placed at the beginning of the name, eg. x Fatshedera lizei - between a false castor oil plant (Genus Fatsia) and an ivy (Genus Hedera).
  • Despite all the care taken to give one name to each plant, some have more than one acceptable name. This usually occurs when a plant is reclassified due do more up-to-date methods of identification and the old name remains in use. In this case the other name or synonym (syn.), is sometimes included on the label, eg. Verbena bonariensis syn. V. patagonica.
(NB. in print, ssp., var., syn., etc. are in standard type not in italics)

To throw some confusion on the names of plants, taxonomists keep themselves busy by reclassifying them. This can be due to advanced microscopic examination which shows that Species similar in looks can have important differences which places them in another Genera. More recently this reclassification is driven by knowledge of the genetic makeup of the plants, so there may well be an avalanche of newly named species. A well-known renaming occurred with a fairly common shrub, Senecio greyi which was given a new Genera Brachyglottis and the variety Dunedin Group 'Sunshine'.
A lot of this taxonomic work is carried out at Kew Gardens in the Herbarium where about seven million plant specimens from around the world are stored. They are currently building an electronic Herbarium Catalogue which is accessible online. Some of the famous botanists in the past have donated collections, including W. A. Broomfield and George Bentham in the nineteenth century.

The naming of roses follows a separate convention where the Cultivar name is usually relevant to a particular country as they tend to be named after famous people or places, so a rose can have a different name depending on where it is being sold. In the international code for naming roses the rose breeder attaches a name to a rose and this stays with it even though another name is given, eg.

Rosa 'Savoy Hotel' has the international code name Rosa 'Harvintage'
Rosa 'Gertrude Jekyll' is Rosa 'Ausbord',
Both may be known by another Cultivar name in another country, but the international code name should be the same. The first three letters of the name represent the breeders name so Ausbord was developed by David Austin, and Harvintage by Harkness Roses. As it is a cultivar it is written with single inverted commas and starts with a capital letter. This system was adopted in 1979 so roses bred before this date do not have the additional international code name.

The lists below give some of the most commonly used names and their meanings. Knowing the origin of the name associates the meaning with the plant so it is easier to remember those long names if you find out something about the plants. The Species in different Genera can have the same name so a culinary or medicinal herb can be called officinale/is, eg. Fumaria officinalis (Fumitory), Melissa officinalis (Lemon balm), Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary), Salvia officinalis (Sage) and Zingiber officinale (Ginger).

Names describing growth habit
Names describing habitat
Names describing leaves
Names describing flowers
Names describing colours
Names describing aromas or scents
Names relating to places
Miscellaneous names

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