Botanical Nomenclature Guide: The Meaning Of Latin Plant Names

Rosemary Plant With Name Tag
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There are so many plant names to learn as it is, so why do we use Latin names too? And exactly what are Latin plant names anyway? Simple. Scientific Latin plant names are used as a means of classifying or identifying specific plants. Let’s learn more about the meaning of Latin plant names with this short but sweet botanical nomenclature guide.

What are Latin Plant Names?

Unlike its common name (of which there may be several), the Latin name for a plant is unique to each plant. Scientific Latin plant names help describe both the “genus” and “species” of plants in order to better categorize them.

The binomial (two-name) system of nomenclature was developed by Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus in the mid-1700s. Grouping plants according to similarities such as leaves, flowers, and fruit, he founded a natural order and named them accordingly. The “genus” is the larger of the two groups and can be equated to the use of a last name like “Smith.” For example, the genus identifies one as “Smith” and the species would be akin to an individual’s first name, like “Joe.”

Combining the two names gives us a unique term for this person’s individual name just as combing the “genus” and “species” scientific Latin plant names gives us a unique botanical nomenclature guide for each individual plant.

The difference between the two nomenclatures being, that in Latin plant names the genus is listed first and is always capitalized. The species (or specific epithet) follows the genus name in lowercase and the entire Latin plant name is italicized or underlined.

Why Do We Use Latin Plant Names?

The use of Latin plant names can be confusing to the home gardener, sometimes even intimidating. There is, however, a very good reason to use Latin plant names.

Latin words for the genus or species of a plant are descriptive terms used to describe a specific type of plant and its characteristics. Using Latin plant names helps to avert confusion caused by the often contradictory and multiple common names an individual may have.

In binomial Latin, the genus is a noun and the species is a descriptive adjective for it. Take, for example, Acer is the Latin plant name (genus) for maple. Since there are many different types of maple, another name (the species) is added too for positive identification. So, when confronted with the name Acer rubrum (red maple), the gardener will know he/she is looking at a maple with vibrant, red, fall leaves. This is helpful as Acer rubrum remains the same regardless of whether the gardener is in Iowa or elsewhere in the world.

The Latin plant name is a description of the plant’s characteristics. Take Acer palmatum, for example. Again, ‘Acer’ means maple while the descriptive ‘palmatum’ means shaped like a hand, and it is derived from ‘platanoides,’ meaning “resembling the plane tree.” Therefore, Acer platanoides means you are looking at a maple that resembles the plane tree.

When a new strain of plant is developed, the new plant needs a third category to further describe its one-of-a-kind characteristic. This instance is when a third name (the plant’s cultivar) is added to the Latin plant name. This third name may represent the developer of the cultivar, location of origin or hybridization, or a specific unique characteristic.

Meaning of Latin Plant Names

For quick reference, this botanical nomenclature guide (via Cindy Haynes, Dept. of Horticulture) contains some of the most common meanings of Latin plant names that are found in popular garden plants.

alba White
ater Black
aurea Golden
azur Blue
chrysus Yellow
coccineus Scarlet
erythro Red
ferrugineus Rusty
haema Blood red
lacteus Milky
leuc White
lividus Blue-gray
luridus Pale yellow
luteus Yellow
nigra Black/dark
puniceus Red-purple
purpureus Purple
rosea Rose
rubra Red
virens Green
Origins or Habitat
alpinus Alpine
amur Amur River – Asia
canadensis Canada
chinensis China
japonica Japan
maritima Sea side
montana Mountains
occidentalis West – North America
orientalis East – Asia
sibirica Siberia
sylvestris Woodland
virginiana Virginia
Form or Habit
contorta Twisted
globosa Rounded
gracilis Graceful
maculata Spotted
magnus Large
nana Dwarf
pendula Weeping
prostrata Creeping
reptans Creeping
Common Root Words
anthos Flower
brevi Short
fili Threadlike
flora Flower
folius Foliage
grandi Large
hetero Diverse
laevis Smooth
lepto Slender
macro Large
mega Big
micro Small
mono Single
multi Many
phyllos Leaf/Foliage
platy Flat/Broad
poly Many

While it isn’t necessary to learn scientific Latin plant names, they may be of significant aid to the gardener as they contain information regarding specialized characteristics among similar plant species.


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