Botanical Naming

Posted on January 4th, 2011

From: Plant Names Explained or ‘This Latin is all Greek to me’ by Gillian Ford. Publication No. 16; Friends of the Devonian Botanic Garden; July 1984. Excerpted and adapted by J. Golub

“Latin” names can be descriptive, amusing, or of historical interest. From earliest times, plant names have been necessary, though usually only for plants of economic or medicinal importance.

It wasn’t until the 17th century with the exploration of ‘new’ worlds and consequent discovery of vast new flora and fauna that a system of classification, other than knowing which were edible or could cure the sick, became necessary. Instead of the herbalist’s hundred or so herbs from his own area, botanists were suddenly expected to cope with thousands of new species from all over the world. The first attempts to make sense of this resulted in names, often several lines long, giving detailed descriptions of the plants. Final credit for bringing order out of chaos goes to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), who proposed both a logical system of classification, and a simple system of binomial naming. Once this was adopted by all botanists, the world-wide communication of knowledge became possible. No longer did a buttercup have fifty names in its country of origin, let alone names used by foreigners. One simple binomial name would suffice for all.

That this was possible was due to Latin - the one language that all educated people had in common at that time. Carl Linnaeus of Sweden could write his books and correspond with people all over the world with no need for a translator. Although we have lost the use of Latin as an international language, we can learn to use botanical names to gain access to a vast and accurate system of information.

A great number of plants were discovered and named over a relatively short period of time by people fluent in Latin and Greek, and well-read in the Classics. Plant names in use today reflect this knowledge, and identification of new plant species goes on all the time and new names must be found for them.

Although the first half, or generic name, is of Latin form and ends in -a, -um, or -us, only a few are the genuine Latin used by Romans; others are Greek, or Greek names derived from still older languages and adopted by the Romans. Some are of medieval origin. The majority were coined at a much later date by botanists, often as a direct latinization of the common name; or, if none existed, a more or less appropriate name was made up, often taken from classical mythology (Linnaeus was very fond of this!).

The second half, or specific name, agrees with the generic name and very many are descriptive: albus - white; multiflorus - many-flowered; canadensis - from Canada. Most are Latin in origin, although the number of discovered species have increased to such an extent that names are often coined from Greek words, while others commemorate people, usually the discoverer or collector, and are latinized. It is estimated that over 400,000 plant names have been validly published with full descriptions in Latin.

Each month, we will give the meanings of the botanical names of the profiled Wildflower of the Month.

For a slightly humourous look at understanding botanical nomenclature, check this out:

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