Plant Naming Basics

Have you ever wondered where scientific plant names come from? With Latin and ancient Greek origins, many names sound strange and sometimes even arbitrary. But these names are rooted (pun intended!) in the history and characteristics of any given plant. According to The New Sunset Western Gardening Book, plant names can come from the name of the person who discovered or first described the plant, the region the plant is from, and any physical characteristics including texture, shape, and color.

As a quick refresher, scientific plant names include genus and species, respectively. For example, Salvia mellifera refers to a California native found along the coast from San Diego to San Francisco. Salvia is the genus (commonly referred to as Sage), mellifera is the species.

Now let’s talk through the background of a few plant names. The New Sunset Western Gardening Book offers the example of Iris douglasiana, a purple flowering CA Native named after horticulturist David Douglas who first described the wildflower in 1831. Some plants are named for their noteworthy characteristics: prostrata or compacta describe shape (E.g. Euphorbia prostrata), fragrans refers to scent (E.g. Lepechinia fragrans), and deliciosa refers to taste (E.g. Monstera deliciosa). Many plants are named for the distinctive color of their leaves, fruits, or flower petals. For example, Symphoricarpos albus is named for its white berries, as albus means white in Latin. Finally, some plants are named for the place they are from. The suffixes -ensis, -us, or -is are added to the names of places. For example, Euonymus japonicus is a flowering plant native to Japan.

Some of these names can be intimidating and difficult to pronounce! A comprehensive pronunciation guide for many common plant names can be found on fineGardening.com.

Sometimes it is easier to remember and refer to plants by their common names. So why are scientific names important? In addition to providing useful information about the plant itself, scientific names eliminate the ambiguity of many common names. Often, the same common name is used (quite confusingly) for two plants of completely different genuses. Thus, the specificity of scientific names makes them incredibly useful tools when plant shopping for our gardens and navigating the natural world.

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