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By AndrewR


For those who are a bit confused by all of the long plant names that some of us seem to recite, I thought I would try and explain the system in use to help you next time you visit the Garden Centre.

First, why do we need these names – why can’t we just call plants by their common names? That’s all very well if everyone used the same name for a plant. But what is called a bluebell in Scotland is known as a harebell in England, and a bluebell south of the border is something completely different. And if you look at a primrose and a cowslip, you will see they look pretty similar so it makes sense to link them in some way and what better way than by their name?

During the eighteenth century, with plant explorers sending more and more plants back to Europe, it became necessary to start a naming system for plants. The system we now use was thought up by a guy called Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist and was adopted some time before 1768. Linnaeus wanted his system to be understood worldwide so he used Latin to name plants. I’ve heard people say “I can’t remember those fancy Latin names” but they know rhododendron, hydrangea, geranium, narcissus, chrysanthemum and a host of others so it is not as difficult as it seems. Those of us who wrestled with Latin at school have a head start in understanding some of the names but once you understand the principles, you can start to learn names pretty quickly.

First is the genus. This links all plants in a family, like a surname. So all hollies are ‘ilex’ and all ivies are ‘hedera’. Linnaeus named many genera (plural of genus) after friends, colleagues and other prominent botanists of the day (a sure way to get his system adopted!) – forsythia after William Forsyth, banksia after Joseph Banks and fuchsia after Leonhart Fuchs. Other names may describe a feature of all plants in the family – campanula (meaning a bell) all have bell-shaped flowers, or helianthus (meaning sun-loving).

Next comes the variety, or christian name, of the plant to distinguish it from others in the family. This may describe the leaves (ilicifolia = leaves like an ilex), the normal colour of the flowers (coccinea = red), where it comes from (chinensis = China) or the explorer who first found the plant (coulteri after Thomas Coulter). If the variety is preceded by the letter ‘x’ (for example anemone x hybrida), it means the plant is a cross between two different parents (that is, the pollinating insect visited two different plants and the offspring bears the hallmarks of both – in this case anemone vitifolia and anemone hupehensis).

There may be a third part to the name. This can describe some other attribute, for example ‘variegata’ will have variegated leaves, or ‘alba’ will have white flowers (instead of the more common blue or pink or whatever). Or it may be a cultivar (cultivated variety) which arose either by chance or deliberate breeding. These can be named after people (like the poppy ‘Patti’s Plum’) or be the result of some marketing bod trying to persuade us to buy it (‘Superba’ or ‘Purple Dream’).

Some plants will not have a variety – these are often large families where the breeders have been hard at work crossing and re-crossing to obtain the perfect bloom – roses are a good example. So you will find rosa ‘Iceberg’ for example or dianthus ‘Doris’.

Finally, a few examples from the hellebore family:

• helleborus foetidus – foetid, or smelly, hellebore

• helleborus x nigercors – a cross between helleborus niger (which has white flowers and leaves with almost smooth edges) and helleborus argutifolius (which has green flowers and leaves with very serrated edges). The resulting plant has white flowers and leaves with serrated edges

• helleborus orientalis ‘Philip Ballard’ – a named cultivar, bred from the oriental hellebore, with particularly dark red flowers

So next time you hear someone talking about hibiscus syriacus ‘Red Heart’ or mahonia x media ‘Charity’, you will start to understand a little more about it just from the name.

More blog posts by AndrewR

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Where does the word 'species' come in please? My tutor keeps writing it on my scripts - he doesn't seem to like the word ' varieties'.

21 Feb, 2008


On the scientific classification system species comes after the genus. So where Andrew chose to use the word 'variety' the scientific word is species.
It's a science thing!!

21 Feb, 2008


Species are what I have called varieties. I suppose that is more scientifically correct.

To simplify things, I have not included subspeices. This is where a species has two distinct forms but they are not different enough to warrant being different species. Subspecies usually occur in distinct geographical areas so probably started identical and have gradually evolved some sort of difference. For example, coronilla valentina has a subspecies glauca which is generally more compact and whose leaves are distinctly blue-green.

21 Feb, 2008


what an interesting way to explain it Andrew, quite a large part of my floristry course was latin plant names so i do know a little about them, but it was never explained in a way that is actually interesting! lol and to be honest i find the latin sometimes easier to spell than english - it's spelt as it's said. if ofcourse you pronouce it right!

21 Feb, 2008


Well, thanks both - I'd better start using the word 'species' from now on instead of 'variety' - might please my tutor and gain a mark or three! I never was a scientist in my past life....

21 Feb, 2008


Want a laugh? I remember, years ago, compiling a list of plants with 'alba' at the end, thinking it meant that they were natives of Scotland!! You can imagine how silly I felt when it dawned on me that they were all white-flowering. lol!

21 Feb, 2008


Well Andrew i think your very clever2know all this&iv learnt alot reading what youve written so its not gone2waste on me,I knew the words were Latin but thats all i did know ? Many Thanx :D

22 Feb, 2008


Thanks Andrew, your transfer of knowledge is really appreciated, especially for the less experienced gardeners like me!
It may take me a while to digest, but this is really helpful.

22 Feb, 2008


Andrew - great explaination thanks.

22 Feb, 2008


oh and one that always used to get a giggle at college was 'nudiflorum' any gues? yep nude flowers - which means the flower comes before the leaves good example would be Jasminum nudiflorum (winter Jasmine) some of the names are very self explanitory which does make them easy to remeber. - i am obviously much better with house plants than i am garden ones (unless they are used as cut flowers/foliege) but another which i will never forget is the Cheese Plant - Monstera (monster) deliciosa (cheese) - makes sense does'nt it! when you have to learn between 20 and 30 per week, which we did on my floristry course you have to try to find an easy way to remember them, i found that finding out what the words actually mean makes it so much easier.

22 Feb, 2008


Andrew - Could you tell me why some vegetable families seemingly have two names e.g. Cabbage is referred to as Cruciferae & Brassicaceae??

25 Feb, 2008


I can't give you a definitive answer but my guess is that the botanists have been working overtime again and the family name has been changed. To give a couple of examples from the not too distant past, lithospermum became lithodora and polygonum became persicaria. I know the pea family changed not so long ago as well.
Pelargoniums were originally classified as geraniums and despite the name change, confusion still reigns to this day

25 Feb, 2008


I wish they wouldn't keep changing perfectly good old names, like 'Montbretia' which is now 'Crocosmia' - I have to try really hard to remember the new names.

26 Feb, 2008


I also read once that botanists can be split in one of two classes - the lumpers and splitters.
Lumpers will put several families together in one genus; splitters will seperate them out again.

Why do names get changed? Firstly, advances in science, particularly DNA analysis, have shown that some plants in one family don't really belong there so have to go in a new family, hence a new name. Secondly, the naming conventions now adopted state that a plant should be called by the first name under which it was registered. This gives plant historians a job to search through records and find when a plant was first discovered and named; this is why some plants have synonyms as they were named more than once and both names are in common usage.

But I agree it can be a pain in the neck when you just get used to one name and then it gets changed. To add to the confusion, some plant sellers insist on sticking to the old name. And a few years ago, it was decided that chrysanthemums were really dendranthemas and all the world changed except the British cut-flower trade who protested long and loud and everyone else changed back again!

27 Feb, 2008


Thanks for the free lesson, Andrew. I did a taster course on gardening recently and a whole lesson was dedicated to name origins. Very interesting, and important as is your blog. I hope I'll be able to come up with such articles someday.

27 Feb, 2008


I think you did well trying to explain plant naming, it is not half as difficult to learn as so many people think, and the main advantage is you can talk to any other plantsman in the world and they will know what you are referring to. Good luck with your NGS day, I am one of the organisers for our county.

12 Mar, 2008


What a useful blog!
Many thanks, Andrew, for explaining so clearly and to everyone who has contributed to the thread with interesting questions and additional points.
Now I know more about the reasoning behind the hierarchy of plant names they are more meaningful and useful.
I feel it would be worthwhile having an 'Armchair Gardening' slot where blogs such as this can be more easily found and suspect there may be others who would find it useful/interesting too.

19 Sep, 2008


Many thanks for this Andrew, it's fantastic and a great help!

I have, with more than a little trpidation, just set of on my gardening journey and could very easily become overwhelmed by it all but your explanation is so clear and interesting it just makes me want to move on and learn more.

12 Jan, 2009


I know I'm late, but this is really interesting, Andrew! Thanks!

15 Oct, 2009

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