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Making sense of plant names


March 3, 2010
By Debra Levey Larson

March 3, 2010 – There are so many plant names to learn. Why do they have
to be in Latin? This is a common lament from many gardeners, said a
University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. 

March 3, 2010 – There are so many plant names to learn. Why do they have to be in Latin? This is a common lament from many gardeners, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. 

"There is a reason," explained Martha A. Smith.  "Horticulturists don't just rattle off the names for fun.  Latin names are unique to a plant — unlike common names.  One way to help you remember the name is to understand a bit of Latin.  Once you know the meanings of common Latin root words, Latin plant names start to make sense."

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A plant will have one – and only one – Latin name.  This same plant, however, may have several common names. 

"Having worked in the green industry in four different growing zones, I have experienced the common name nightmare," she explained.  "Granny's Sunbonnet in Texas is not the same plant as Granny's Sunbonnet in New England.  For clarity, gardeners use Latin to ensure they are talking about the same plant. 

"I was once phoned about a yellow poplar.  I immediately aligned my answer with the Populus genus, because the common name is poplar…. wrong!  The caller actually wanted to know about Lirodendron tulipifera, a.k.a. yellow poplar, tulip poplar, tulip magnolia, whitewood, and tulip tree!  If you call a local nursery and ask about red maple, do you mean Acer rubrum, Acer palmatum var. atropurpureum 'Bloodgood', or Acer platanoides 'Crimson King'?  All are maples that share a common name but are very different from one another." 

Smith said it is also important to understand how a name is written.  The first word is the genus, the second word the specific epithet.  Acer is the genus for maple. 

"Compare this to your last name," she said.  "The specific epithet follows, usually having some type of descriptor in it that separates it from the other maples. Compare this to your brothers and sisters.  You all share the last name of Smith, but you are each individuals.  Acer rubrum is different from Acer platanoides, just like Mary Smith is different from Joe Smith."

Smith recalled that when she first started learning plant names she found a great guidebook simply titled Gardener's Latin, written by Bill Neal. 

"I was able to connect most names with the plant using the Latin descriptions," she said.  "Seeing a root word of ruber in a Latin name tips me off that this plant has something about it that is red since ruber means red or ruddy.  Acer rubrum is red maple, which describes its beautiful fall color.  The root word lacteus means milk white. Artemisia lactiflora will offer white flowers to your landscape.  If you are following a color scheme of blue flowers and foliage, look for the root word glauca or glaucus in the plant name, but stay away from aurea or aureus or croceus, which indicates a yellow attribute. 

Smith suggested looking at the name Campanula rotundifolia 'alba'. What does the Latin name tell you about this plant?  She broke it down by explaining that campan means bell and refers to the bell-shaped flowers, rotund means round, and folio means leaves, and alba means white. So this plant has bell-shaped flowers, round leaves, and some type of white attribute, perhaps the flower color.


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