Botanic Latin

Botanic Latin, a Naming System

Carolus Linnaeus (Carl for short) is credited with introducing a system of both naming and classifying the plants during the eighteenth century with the introduction of his book, Species Plantarum, in 1753. Many gardeners look upon the binomial system with disdain and trepidation. It is foreign, unpronounceable, unspellable, and forgettable. When in actual fact, the binomial system does us a great service.

Prior to its introduction in the 1700’s, communicating with others in regards to plants (animals and minerals too) was confusing and time consuming. Common names were common to people of one area, but not another, who had come up with an entirely different name for the plant. Long phrases or paragraphs were written to adequately communicate to one plant aficionado or another, describing the growing form, shape, size, color, texture, and flowering habit. With the introduction of the binomial, or “two name” system (genus and species), communication and identification was much simpler.

An example of botanic confusion is easily seen when using the word primrose. What comes to mind? A small, low growing, spring flowering perennial native to the northern hemispheres having basal rosettes of heavily veined leaves. The name primrose originates from the Italian word primavera, meaning, spring. The primrose we most associate with could be the English primrose, Primula vulgaris. But other flowers in other parts of the world are called primroses too. Cowslips, oxslips, auriculas (sometimes called bear’s ear), even cyclamens and the evening primrose (Oenothera genus) of the Midwest and semi-arid regions (including our own) are termed primrose. I have a reference book, Flora, which describes only 20,000 of the nearly 280,000 angiosperms (flowering plants). Flora decribes 30 different species of the Primula genus alone. From this, one can easily imagine the confusion that could, and did, occur when making just common name references. You may not even realize you were being misinterpreted.

Linnaeus developed the binomial system in which plants could be known by just two words, the genus and species name, with the species name subordinate to the genus. The language of the educated of Linnaeus’ day was Latin, hence, it became known as Botanic Latin. The advantage with this system is that no two species of plants in the world have the same name. When you refer to a plant using it genus and species name, it is an exact reference. Linnaeus went about naming thousands of the known plants of his day, in fact, all the species of plants known to him at that time under the appropriate genera. Linnaeus previously published Genera Plantarum in 1737, describing 1105 genera of plants.

Of course, that was in the 1750’s. Since then, a great deal more plant exploration, plant hybridizing, and naming have taken place. Sub species names have become necessary, in many cases. Sub species include varieties, cultivars or hybrid names. It has also become the fashion among plant breeders to trademark names or identify subspecies with PPAF or PP (patent pending). However, these are not official names accepted by the International Code of Botanic Nomenclature, merely marketing names.

Botanic Latin, a Classification System

Carl Linnaeus is also credited with establishing a classification system. He not only gave names to all the known plants of his day (later also animals and minerals), but also placed the plants in a system relative to other plants, a system that was endless expandable. Linnaeus’ contribution was in bringing order by placing plants into the families, genera, species (Kingdom, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species) classification we know today. Linnaeus classified plants according to the Sexual System, upon similarities of pistils and stamens, so named after the then recent discovery that plants had reproductive systems.

As the centuries passed, man’s ability to more closely look and observe a plant and its characteristics has increased. Often there is no single feature that only identifies a plant as belonging in this species or a new species. It is still somewhat judgmental. With the advances in microscopic techniques today, comparisons of cytology, chromosomes, and DNA aid in determining classification. Although the Sexual System is not used as the basis in plant classification, Linnaeus’ classification structure is still in place. Changes are made each year, transferring a plant from one genus to another, and rarely, from one family to another. These changes are minor.

Rudimentary Aspects of Botanic Latin

Although Botanic Latin is a comprehensive system, gardeners need only be concerned with the plants genus, species and sub species name. The Family classification is of interest when looking for plant allies. To better understand this gardener’s language, there are just a few things to remember.

  • Plant names are in Latin form, but botanic Latin is not classical Latin. These Latin or Latinized names may have special plant meaning: botanic Latin.
  • Family names end with the suffix “-aceae”, which means, “of the family of”.
  • Genera or genus is defined as “a group of plants with similarities in flower form and often in general appearance, growth habit and cultural requirements.” (How Plants Get Their Names, Liberty Hyde Bailey, 1963).
  • Plants are then further broken down into the species classification. Species “is a kind of plant or animal that is distinct from other kinds in marked or essential features that has good characteristics of identification, and that may be assumed to represent in nature a continuing succession of individuals from generation to generation.”(Bailey). That is, species are reproduced or reproducible in nature.
  • The genus comes first and is always capitalized and italicized. Some are actual Latin words, the majority are Greek words. Nearly all genus names have been given an ending to make them look like Latin; they are Latinized. Genus is singular form, genera is plural.
  • Species names are often genuine Latin, an adjective, and with botanic meaning. What this means, is that the species names is usually descriptive in nature. It may describe the shape of the leaf or some other plant characteristic such as the flower, color or bloom season or the plant as a whole. The species name may be a Latinized name of a person or place, and not necessarily the location the plant is native.
  • Species names are not capitalized; even proper names, and they are italicized. Species is used for both singular and plural references.
  • A species name may only be used once within a genus. If a plant is moved from one genus to another genus that already has that species name, the species name is renamed. The plant is given a new name.
  • A variety is a member of a species that naturally occurs in nature that is different enough to be recognized. Usually a difference in flower color from one plant to another of the same species would be one example. Occasionally subspecies or varieties will be written as ssp. or var.
  • A cultivar is a plant variety maintained in cultivation by vegetative propagation or from inbred seed. Cultivar means cultivated variety and is usually a Roman word or words. Cultivars are usually not found in nature.
  • A cultivar name is enclosed in single quotation marks. (Example: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’)
  • A hybrid is a plant resulting from a cross between two parents that belong to different varieties, cultivars, species or rarely, genera. Hybrids do not produce viable seed.
  • Hybrid species are indicated by an “x” before the species name and is italicized. (Example: Nepeta x faassenii ‘Select Blue’, is a cross between N. racemosa and N. nepetella.) Some plant catalogs omit the species name when listing a plant, showing only the genus and variety name. An important rule of nomenclature is to list the plants complete name: genus, species and subspecies.
  • Plant breeders and propagators sometimes identify certain hybrids or cultivars using PPAF or PP, indicating the owner of the plant has applied for or received a patent, preventing propagation of the plant for sale without a license.
  • Trademarks placed on plants indicate the origin of the plant (nursery or plant breeder) but does not restrict propagation.
  • Again, names using PPAF, PP or trademark names may not be names registered with the International Code of Botantic Nomenclature, but are for marketing purposes only. The naming of plants is subject to the International Code of Botanic Nomenclature.

I guess this is more than a few things, but it helpful to be aware of them. What about pronouncing Botanic Latin names? Botanic Latin is not an official spoken language, so most pronunciations are accepted. The main thing is to use the language of plants.

Applying Botanic Latin

In this section I have given some practical examples.

In choosing plants, pay attention to color. Some color descriptions can be misleading, especially when wanting true blues and true reds. Purple and violet are lumped into the blue color spectrum and any colors from magenta to mahogany many times are touted as red in plant descriptions. One person’s red may certainly not be yours. Your red, white and blue garden may end up being purple, magenta and silver – hardly the flag waving patriotic display hoped for. How disappointing! If you have the opportunity to view the plant in bloom, note the species and variety, this makes all the difference to your color scheme.

The colors of foliage and flower are liberally interpreted. If you’ve ever enjoyed a visit to the Denver Botanic Garden and have seen their famed “Red Garden” in August, you will understand. If you are planning an outrageous, but exciting, red bed or border, a working knowledge of botanic Latin helps you navigate untraveled waters.

How many ways can you say red? These Latin species names or prefixes all have references to a shade of red: aurantiacus (orange-red), cardinalis (cardinal red), carminatus (carmine), cerasinus (cherry red), cinnabarinus (cinnamon red, vermilion), coccineus (scarlet), corallinus (coral red), cruentus (bloody, stained blood red in color), erythraeus (red), ferrugineus (rust colored), fulgens (shining or glistening, often with red flowers), fulvus (tawny; brownish orange to a light reddish color), haematodes (Bloody, blood red in color), ignescens, igneus (fiery red in color), incarnatus (flesh-colored, pink), kermesinus (carmine colored, purplish red), lateritius (dark brick red in color), rubrum or rufus (red, ruddy, becoming red), and sanguineus (blood red). (Resource: Gardener’s Latin, a Lexicon by Bill Neal.) And there are others, but I belabor the point.

The species name may not refer to the flower at all, but to the fruit, root, stem or leaf. Sometimes when used as a prefix in the species name, you will be given a clue, such as erythrocarpus, meaning red-fruited. My point is, some catalogs and descriptions take liberties when ascribing color to a particular plant. If you have an astute gardener’s acquaintance with botanic Latin, you’ll choose more wisely. Having said that, often times the composition of our soil will contribute to color as well, as with acid soil producing blue flowers in hydrangeas while alkaline soil produces pink flowers.

Perhaps your first thought in planning beds and borders is not the structural composition of plants, but it should be. If you can arrange plants in a container, you can design beds. What’s required is pencil and paper, a little imagination, knowledge of a plant’s growth requirements and shape. Simply, a taller, spiky plant combined with a somewhat rounded plant and one that trails or hangs that have similar growth requirements. It’s easy to visualize in a container. When planning the beds and borders, increase the number of plants for each shape and repeat patterns. The number of plants and similarly shaped plants will vary depending on the size and shape of your space. As you imagine, infinite variations and possibilities will manifest itself.

Likewise, botanic Latin names give a clue as to the plant’s shape or size – important in developing pleasing bed and border compositions. Botanic Latin prefixes and suffixes by themselves or combined denote these characteristics: aestivalis (pertaining to summer), angustus (narrow), brachy (signifying short), globosus (round, spherical), grandis (big, showy or grand), foetidus (bad smelling or stinking), longus, -a, –um (signifying long), macro (large, long or big), micro (small, tiny), parvus (small), parvulus (very small), repens, reptans (creeping,), rotundifolius (round-leaved), speciosus (pleasing, showy), tortuosus (very twisted), tricolor (three-colored) and countless others. (Resource: Gardener’s Latin, a Lexicon by Bill Neal.)

When you are unfamiliar with the plant and no common name or description is given, a gardener’s acquaintance with our working language steers you in the right direction. Bill Neal’s lexicon or just a pocket guidebook (New Pronouncing Dictionary of Plant Names, American Nurseryman Publishing Company) should be included in your backpack when on plant forays and expeditions to nurseries and botanic gardens. You might think this emphasis on nomenclature extreme, but if you are bitten by the plant bug, after trying all the common heat-loving, drought tolerant plants, your desire for the new and unfamiliar is just piqued and needs to be satiated.

Angie Hanna, January, 2006