Botanical Plant Names: A Lesson in Latin

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Many gardeners resist learning the botanical (Latin or scientific) names of plants, preferring common names instead. Unfortunately, they miss a lot of information about the plants’ characteristics.

Botanical names come in two or three segments. The first denotes the genus, a noun written with a capital first letter and italicized. A genus contains plants that share similar characteristics and may contain many members or only a few. Let’s use Dianthus for an example.

Next follows the specific epithet, an adjective written in lowercase italics. Often referred to as the species name, it tells us something specific about the plant. Actually, the genus plus the specific epithet comprises the species name. To continue our example, Dianthus deltoides tells us the plant has triangle shapes somewhere on the plant. “Toides” means resembling, and “delta” means triangular.

If a third name exists, it designates one of two things: a cultivar or a hybrid. Cultivar, the contraction of cultivated variety, denotes plants that have been selected for a particular characteristic and propagated by humans. You will find a cultivar written in plain text and set between single quotation marks. Our example of Dianthus deltoides ‘Albus’ now adds to the description by telling us the flower blooms white.

A hybrid results in the crossbreeding of two nonidentical plants, usually within the same species. However, occasionally a hybrid appears from a cross between different species within the same genus.

Doesn’t the Latin name tell you more about our example plant than its common name, “pinks,” especially when referring to the white variety?

Some of these common horticultural Latin prefixes you might already know: Campanula (bell-shaped), officinal (medical), nocti (night), gracili (slender), strepto (twisted), platy (broad and flat), trachy (rough), sauvi (sweet), hirtus (hairy), flavi, xantho, luteus (yellow), erythro, rubrum (red), viridi (green), melano (black) and cyano (blue). Try guessing these: grandi, columnaris, compactus and palmatum.

Latin suffixes also describe the plant: ella (looks like), carus, carpus (fruited), flolius (leaved), caulis (stemmed) or florus (flowers). Perhaps the name refers to where it originated: Africanus, Californicus or Orientalis.

When you put a prefix and a suffix together, you get a fairly good description. Noctiflorus tells us it blooms at night. If you are looking for a petite plant for the front row, you don’t want a plant with vulgarus in the scientific name.

A fear of pronouncing the name wrong seems to be one reason gardeners shy away from using botanical names. I learned to get the right number of syllables in the correct order, and everyone will understand which plant you mean. I can say “CLEM a tis” or “Cle MAH tis.” It doesn’t matter because both work.

Knowing Latin names allows you to communicate with other gardeners in Illinois and around the world. Now I wish I had taken Latin in school instead of French.

By the way, the answers to those Latin prefixes above: large, columnar, compact and palm-shaped.

Ask the Expert

Q: Last summer my wood mulch developed unsightly white blobs. What is it, and is it toxic?

A: Slime mold appears during high temperatures and humidity. It’s harmless to plants, animals and the mulch. Fluff up and loosen the mulch with a rake to let in some air if the appearance bothers you.

Q: My indoor ficus developed scale. How do I get rid of it?

A: The only guaranteed solution? Get rid of the ficus and wait a year before bringing a new one into your home. Systemic insecticide works temporarily, but it smells, and the scale will return.

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