Horticultural nomenclature

When Naming Your Plant Becomes a Headache

Do you love plants, but are a little confused about the different terms used to name them? No problem! Here’s the article that will help you untangle the differences between the common name in Canada, the common name in Europe, the Latin name, the species, the subspecies, the variety and the cultivar of plants.

Photo : Karolina Grabowska

Are you ready? Let’s get started!

The Common Name: The Troublemaker

Let’s start with the common name, also called vernacular name, which is simply the name we commonly give to a plant. However, sometimes this name is different from one region to another, from one generation to another, or even if the plant has several common names in one region: this can be very confusing!

For example, “domestic apple tree”, “common apple tree” or simply “apple tree”, refer to the same apple-bearing tree that we have in our gardens. The common name is usually translated into all languages, or exists in the local language of the place where the plant grows.

I hate common names, because they’re often confusing.

The Latin Name: The Fallible Superhero


The Latin name (or botanical name for plants) is the scientific name of a plant that is used worldwide and is standardized in all languages. For example, the Latin name of the apple tree is Malus domestica.

Latin names are written in italics and consist of two parts: the genus, the first of the two words with a capital letter, and the species. Plants with the same genus are more similar than those with no words in common. For example, Malus sylvestris is the name of a wild European apple tree.

Here we see that the domestic dog is more closely related to the wolf and coyote than to the fennec, for example. Shared relationships are often reflected by the same genus name.Source: biologycorner.com

Sometimes scientific names are really complicated. And sometimes they tell us something. You may have noticed the similarity to the word “domestic” in my example of apples, but also americanum or even Allium higher up ring bells.

Anecdote: I once did a paper on the roseate spoonbill, whose Latin family name is Threskiornithidae. Even after years, I am unable to pronounce it correctly.

Spatule rose. Photo : Biodôme

Some Latin words come back often and allow us, when we have memory, to deduce the associated species. For example: chiroptera is the union of chiro which means “hand” and ptera which means “wings”. Winged hands. We’re referring to bats here.

Where it gets tricky: there are divergences among scientists, new discoveries, etc., which sometimes lead to the modification of names. The apple tree itself has had several names in history: Malus communis, Malus dasyphylla… it even had the genus Pyrus at one time.

Conclusion: the Latin name is the best way to designate a plant worldwide, but beware, nothing is perfect!


Scientists don’t all agree on the definition of a species. I don’t want to go into details since there is no real consensus (besides, it’s even more complicated for plants than for animals!).

It happens that to define a precise species, the two words (genus and species) are not enough. This often happens when a number of individuals have somehow isolated themselves from the rest of the group. This new small group can then develop a new coloration, a new behavior, a new food, without being really different from the original group. We can then speak of a subspecies and add a third word to its Latin name.

I’ll give you an example of an animal (because I think it’s simpler) whose division is geographical: Panthera tigris jacksoni is the Malayan tiger and Panthera tigris altaica is the Amur or Siberian tiger. The two subspecies are separate and live in different climates, but although minimal elements (weight, size, coloration) vary, they are constituted in the same way and could reproduce if not for the distance.

Malayan tiger. Photo : Tu7uh
Siberian Tiger. Photo : Zoo Hluboka

Look at the differences between the two: the Siberian tiger lives in colder climates than the Malayan tiger.

In plants, it’s the same: a difference in flower, in leaf shape, in geographical distribution can lead to different subspecies. However, hybridization abilities (natural or not), invasive plants, and several other elements mess up the nomenclature of plants. That’s why I don’t want to dwell on it too much. Anyway, as far as houseplants are concerned, I don’t know of any example where it is really relevant (except maybe for collectors?)

Sp. and Ssp.

This abbreviation is very useful… when you don’t want to make too much effort! When you see sp., it simply means “species” and ssp. “subspecies”. If it says “tropical sp.” on a pot, it means… that this plant is a tropical species!

It’s more appropriate (from a scientist’s point of view) to put a genus rather than a general word like “tropical”. For example: “Trandescantia sp.”

The Cultivar or Variety: Which Is What Is Really Interesting for the Gardener

Finally, we have the cultivar, which is a name given to a specific variety of a plant that has been developed by selection or breeding. It simply means that it is a variety cultivated by man. This is also called artificial selection.

Cultivars often have names that reflect their appearance or origin, such as ‘Gala’ for a specific variety of apple tree. Cultivars are not separate species, but rather variations of the same species and are written after the Latin name, sometimes in single English quotes and in Roman script.

Photo: ecoumene.com

That’s what’s interesting to most gardeners who have a vegetable garden. Do we want a beef heart tomato or a cherry tomato? It’s the cultivar name that will tell us which type of tomato seed is in the package. Same thing for flowers: the cultivar often corresponds to the color, the size or the shape of the flowers.

Good luck!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

10 comments on “When Naming Your Plant Becomes a Headache

  1. Excellent explanation. Thanks

  2. I compare botanical names to automotive names: General Motors = family . Buick = genus . Electra = species . sedan = variety.

    • Bryanna Keseloff

      Sedan would be more of a morphological term in this analogy, rather than a taxonomic one, since it’s “polyphyletic”, as it were. It would be more equivalent to something like the term epiphyte, or caudiciform.

      • Many cultivar names describe distinct morphology, such as ‘Compacta’, ‘Prostrata’ or ‘Variegata’. They are a bit more specific than species designations.

  3. Those of us who collect succulents frequently collect not just the plants, but spend hours on research, attempting to fully identify them right down to the precise cultivar name. It’s part of the fascination!

  4. Your explanation was very helpful, but I still am not sure about “cultivars”. I’ve been told by a reputable nursery person that a blue lobelia “cultivar” for sale was a native plant capable of nourishing native insects here in New Jersey, since it appeared in their native beds naturally and was then planted and replicated without changing it. I bought 3 and planted them. They grew and bloomed even though I planted them a bit late. Is such a plant a “native plant”? Thanks for your help with this confusing topic!!

    • Bryanna Keseloff

      If a species and the subsequent “cultivar” evolved where you are at, then yes, it is native. It sounds like what she actually meant was “local genotype”, and incorrectly applied the term “cultivar” instead, which yea, can make things confusing. A local genotype is a local population that evolved there naturally, whereas a cultivar, in general, is something humans intentionally bred. I hope that cleared it up somewhat

  5. Jan Bushfield

    Thank you for the clear concise explanation. Now if I could just remember all that…

  6. Ann T Dubas

    Thanks Audrey! And then there are the completely misleading common names such as May Apple. Still, I like the common names because they are so connected to culture and people’s use of and experience with plants over time. Feverfew, dog bane, hen bane, devil’s walking stick, Indian hemp, etc etc.

  7. Granny Pat

    Aggghh! You have broken my head! ?

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