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This article was published originally on 4/7/1995Do you panic when faced with Latin plant names? Contrary to the belief of many, Carl von Linne, the creator of botanical nomenclature, was trying to make things easier for plant lovers. His Latin names for plants often include an adjective that describes some physical attribute of the plant. Von Linne classified plants according to physical similarities and assigned each a standard two-part name, or binomial. Thousands of plants were categorized based on the structure of their sexual parts. He believed in the system so much that he Latinized his own name to Carolus Linnaeus.
The two parts of binomial nomenclature are the generic epithet, which names the genus and is always capitalized, and the specific epithet, which names the species and is usually lowercase. The generic epithet often honor the person who first found the plant. Other genus names can only be appreciated by those who know mythology. Genus names can also be physically descriptive. The specific epithet usually provides a good clue to the plant's looks or character. As you read plant catalogs and garden books, you'll notice several that are used over and over.
Cultivar names can be spotted by the single quote marks that surround them. Cultivars are often named for people or places, but a few plant breeders follow a theme like songbirds or Shakespeare. Other breeders go for poetic names or fanciful things.
Some commonly used specific epithet plant names include:
Even though many of you probably haven't taken a Latin course, learning the meanings of words can be fun. With frequent use and repetition, the names do eventually sink in. If this article has piqued your interest in Latin plant names, try these books. Dictionary of Plant Names: The pronunciation, derivation, and meaning of botanical names and their common-name equivalents by Allen J. Coombes, Timber Press, Inc. Gardener's Latin by Bill Neal, Algonquin Books. How Plants Get Their Names by L.H. Bailey, Dover Publications.
Year of Publication:
IC-470(7) -- April 7, 1995