Novice gardeners are often terrified of botanical names. Given their Latin and Greek origins, learning them often seems daunting. So why not just stick to the common name? But when you start to use botanical names on a regular basis, you begin to appreciate them. After all, they do help avoid much confusion because each plant has only one botanical name*, while it can have several, if not dozens, of common names.
*At least in theory! Sometimes botanical names do change. See Why Do Plant Names Change? for an explanation.
I run into the problem of common names all the time when I answer gardening questions, especially on the radio, when I really have to think fast. When someone asks me about growing a “Lady’s Slipper,” does he or she mean an orchid (Cypripedium), a potted plant (Calceolaria) or a perennial (Aconitum)?. “Devil’s tobacco” can be Symplocarpus foetidus, Arctium lappa, Verbascum thapsus or even Cannabis sativus! Even the word “lilac,” which any Northern gardener would automatically associate with the large shrub with fragrant flowers (Syringa), is used for Ceanothus, a large shrub without any fragrance whatsoever, or even a small, equally scentless tree, Lagerstroemia, in warmer climates where Syringa doesn’t grow.
Common names may in fact be too common, so much so you really don’t know what plant is involved. For me, they’re a real tower of Babel! On the contrary, even when you travel to the end of the world and have to deal with a gardener who speaks only Uzbek or Japanese, if you know the botanical name, you can still communicate, because botanical names are international.
Not So Hard to Learn
People often seem surprised that I use botanical names so readily, but in fact, in addition to practice making perfect (I’m immersed in horticulture all day!), if I so easily remember botanical names, it’s because I’ve learned to understand them. And when I understand something, I can better remember it.
No, I’m not a Latin scholar, but yes, I have picked up a bit of botanical Latin and Greek over time. For me, for example, it is clear that alba means white, rubra is red, nigra is black, cyanea is blue, flava is yellow, purpurea is purple, aurantiaca is orange, argentea is silver, etc. And I’m sure many gardeners reading this text easily understood at least a word or two from that list as well. You picked up their meanings by seeing or hearing them again and again. And sometimes Latin is pretty close to English. If you see the word prostrata, I’ll bet you would be able to guess it grows prostrate (low to the ground). And that a plant with the descriptive splendens or magnifica has something splendid or magnificent about it.
The more you deal with botanical names, the easier it becomes. That’s why many experienced gardeners instantly understand grandiflora and multiflora. They mean, respectively, “big flowered” and “with many flowers” (flora, for flower, is fairly understandable, and grandi and multi are also pretty obvious). If you did get those names, you were able to understand that combining two different botanical names creates a new one, and it’s proof you’re getting pretty good with your botanical Latin!
Many botanical names are geographical references and these are usually pretty obvious. Do I even have to explain what canadensis, germanica or californica mean? And just guess where plants with those names come from?
Some botanical names are, of course, more obscure than these examples, but do make sense when you understand them … and I’ve learned that a word understood is easier to learn than one that has no meaning for you. For example, I have learned over time that dendron means tree. And from there I was able to extrapolate that Rhododendron means rose tree (from the Greek rhodo for rose), that Philodendron means “tree-lover” (from philo for love … as in Philadelphia, city of brotherly love!), since philodendrons love to climb trees, that Toxicodendron means poisonous tree, etc. And when you know that anthus means “flower,” suddenly incomprehensible names like Dianthus, polyanthus and Helianthus become clearer. Dianthus means “flower of the gods” (from dius for god), polyanthus means multiple flowers and Helianthus means sunflower (from helios for sun) for its big sun-shaped bloom.
OK Now I’ll throw a harder one at you. What do you think Dracocephalum means? It sounds obscure, doesn’t it, but again, I’ll bet a number of readers got it right away, because you’ve seen the words draco and cephalum elsewhere. Draco means dragon and cephalum means head. So, put it together and you get dragon-headed, since this plant’s flower (head) is in the shape of a dragon.
You’ll find that the majority of botanical names do have a meaning and once you understand that meaning, you’ll be well on the way to remembering the plant’s botanical name.
When a Latin name has no obvious sense, that’s often because it’s commemorative: the name was given to honor someone. There is no use looking for the Latin origin of Lewisia in a Latin dictionary for example: it’s not even a true Latin name, but rather Latinized English. It honors American explorer Merriweather Lewis, who discovered it. Rudbeckia commemorates Swedish father and son botanists whose family name was Rudbeck. And the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica honors Queen Victoria. (And I’ll bet that 99% of you got the fact that amazonica is a geographical reference to the Amazon River. I told you you knew more botanical Latin than you thought!). There is even a Ligularia hodgsonii … but it is not named for me (Larry Hodgson), but rather the British botanist Bryan Houghton Hodgson.
Often the names honor not humans, but figures from mythology. Most gardeners will understand that names like Narcissus, Hyacinthus, Iris, Daphne, Adonis, and Andromeda have links with the Greek mythology. Moreover, there is a fascinating Greek legend behind each of these names!
The Go-To Site for Botanical Names
If you want to know the meaning of an obscure botanical name, let me direct you to the site Botanary. This site is incredibly helpful for delving into the meanings of botanical names: I’m sure even Latin scholars visit it! Simply type the name in the box provided, and 99 times out of 100, it will give you the origin or definition. Example: if you type in Echinacea (for the popular garden perennial), here is what you get: From the Greek echinos, (sea urchin or hedgehog), referring to the plant’s cone. I get that: the prickly cone in the center of the flower is like a sea urchin! Let’s try Hemerocallis, the botanical name of the daylily: beautiful for a day. Again, that makes sense, as the flower lasts only one day.
Sometimes when the reference is really obscure, but I want to retain the name, I try to create a mnemonic. In my mind, Petasites is a parasite (and it truly is invasive!), Gaillardia becomes a happy pig (gay lard: I imagine a fat, smiling pig basking in the center of the flower), Gazania is obviously gazin’ on ya, etc. These small memory games, called mnemonic aids (note that most Latin names are easier to remember the word “mnemonics” itself!), can really make botanical names readily come to mind.
Try it yourself! Here are three botanical names that don’t have an immediate sense: Papaver (poppy), Malus (apple), and Syringa (lilac). Try to pronounce them, create an image of the plant in your mind, then find a word or image or a combination of words and images that would make sense for you and associate the two in your brain. When you’ve done that, you’ll see: you’ll remember the names forever!