How to Remember Botanical Names

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Botanical names can be hard to remember. Source: thecliparts.co

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 lappaVerbascum 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

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Learning botanical names is not as hard as you might think. Source: ites.psu.edu

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!

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Hmm, I wonder where Agapanthus africanus comes from? Source: more-cliparts.net & laoblogger.com

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.

Commemorative Names

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The genus Lewisia was named in honor of its discoverer, Merriweather Lewis. Source: www.growsonyou.com & Wikimedia Commons

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

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Botanary is an excellent place to go if you want to look into the meaning of botanical names. Source: davesgarden.com/guides/botanary/

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.

Mnemonics

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Gaillardia, the happy pig! Source: sweetclipart.com & i_am_jim, Wikimedia Commons

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!20180131E sweetclipart.com & i_am_jim, Wikimedia Commons .jpg

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Finding the Right Botanical Name

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Even Carl Linnaeus would be confused about the current state of botanical names! Source: Nationalmuseum press photo

When Carl Linnaeus developed the binomial system of nomenclature for plants and animals in 1753, where each species was placed in a genus (the first name) with other closely related species, then given a specific name (the second name) that only applied to it, it was designed to simplify their naming. So, you’d have species with names like Homo (genus) sapiens (species) for humans or Taraxacum officinale for the dandelion and the same name would be applied all over the world. No more biological tower of Babel!

The system has worked fairly well over the last 250 years, although, for various reasons, some names have been changed … but never so many as today. That’s because taxonomists (scientists who name plants) have a new tool not available in Linnaeus’s time: in-depth genetic studies. He grouped species together according to the appearance of their organs, notably those of their sexual parts, and that was usually pretty accurate.

However…

Evolution can lead two beings to evolve similar organs even though they’re not closely related. And the newly acquired ability of being able to study the DNA of plants and animals (DNA sequencing) means we can look more deeply into the makeup of any being than was ever possible in the past. This has revolutionized the field of taxonomy and caused a great deal of change in scientific names as the true relationships between species are slowly revealed.

Putting a Name on It

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It’s not your imagination: botanical names really are changing more frequently these days. Source: Tropical Plant Pictures

The result of this is that many well-known plants (I’ll stick to botany here) have changed names … often repeatedly, as more is learned about them. The coleus went from being called Coleus blumei to Solenostemon scutellarioides and is now Plectranthus scutellarioides. The Monterey cypress went from being Callitropsis macrocarpa to Cupressus macrocarpa, then Neocupressus macrocarpa, then back to Cupressus macrocarpa … and now it’s possible it will end up with yet another name, to Hesperocyparis macrocarpa.

(I wrote in more detail about this in Why Do Plant Names Change? and you might want to read that.)

The question now becomes: what is the current accepted Latin name of any given plant? People like myself, who share knowledge about plants—writers, lecturers, teachers, bloggers, gardeners, etc.—, need to be able to put the right name on the right plant. But where do you go to find it?

My Solution

20171229C.pngFor the last few years, I’ve been using The Plant List, subtitled A working list of all plant species, as my source of up-to-date botanical names. It provides the accepted Latin name for most species. Over one million species names, 350,000 considered valid, appear on it in about 17,000 plant genera. The two principal collaborators are the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Missouri Botanical Garden, two places I used to go for confirmation of plant names anyway.

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Just enter the botanical name you know and click on Search. Soon the current status of the name will appear. Source: The Plant List

When I have a plant whose botanical name is in doubt, I go to www.theplantlist.org, enter the botanical name I know, and the screen then shows me the current status of the plant’s name. There’ll be an Accepted name and, most likely, a series of synonyms, names it once had. I use the Accepted name in my writing and lecturing.

Not Perfect

Of course, The Plant List isn’t perfect. First, some 20% of plant names are listed as “unresolved,” meaning more work is needed in determining the correct name (fortunately, most “unresolved” names are of rarely grown plants). Also, it will never be 100% up-to-date, as it is only updated periodically. For example, I know from other sources that the botanical name of Monterey cypress (mentioned above) is likely to change from the current Accepted Latin name of Cupressus macrocarpus to Hesperocyparis macrocarpa, but I’ll stick to the Plant List name until it officially recognizes the change.

You’ll find that many, perhaps most, people working in the field of horticulture do the same.


Not sure of a plant name? Just go to The Plant List. It will give you a good enough name for your purposes!20171229C

Understanding Botanical Names

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201608010A.jpgIf you garden and want to communicate with other gardeners, common names just don’t cut the mustard. The same plant can have so many of them and they change all over the world, in fact even within the same language. I mean, if Americans and Brits can’t even agree on what plant the word daisy refers to (it’s Leucanthemum vulgaris or oxeye daisy for Americans and Bellis perennis or English daisy in Great Britain), how useful can a common name be?

Fortunately botanical names, also called Latin names, are universal. Although they may seem complicated at first, they aren’t as daunting as you may think, especially when you have picked up a bit of botanical Latin.

Each botanical name is composed of two parts, the genus name, which is shared among related plants and is a bit like a surname, and the epithet, which makes it clear exactly which plant is being mentioned. For example, there are many related plants in the genus Helianthus, but the epithet annuum indicates a specific species, Helinathus annuum, the common annual sunflower.

List of Botanical Epithets

Here are some of the more common botanical epithets. Note that the ending changes depending on the gender of the genus name, which is why the same stem can end in –is, -e, –us, -a, -um, etc.

How many of these do you already know or have you already figured out? You’ll be surprised!

  1. acaulis, e = without a stem
  2. acer, acris = acrid
  3. acutifolius, a, um = with sharp leaves
  4. affinis, e = related
  5. alatus, a, um = winged
  6. albus, a, um = white
  7. alpestris, e = alpine
  8. alpinus, a, um = alpine
  9. amabilis, e = beautiful
  10. amoenus, a, um = attractive
  11. angustifolius, a, um = with narrow leaves
  12. annuus, a, um = annual
  13. arborescens = tree-like
  14. arboreus, a, um = tree-like
  15. argenteus, a, um = silvery
  16. arvensis, e = found on cultivated land
  17. atropurpureus, a, um = dark purple
  18. atrosanguineus, a, um = dark red
  19. aurantiacus, a, um = orange-red
  20. aureus, a, um = golden
  21. autumnalis, e = flowering in autumn
  22. azureus, a, um = sky-blue
  23. barbatus, a, um = bearded
  24. bicolor = of two colours
  25. biennis = biennial
  26. bipinnatus, a, um = twice-pinnate
  27. borealis, e = from the North
  28. bracteatus, a, um = bearing bracts
  29. bulbosus, a, um = bulbous
  30. caeruleus, a, um = sky-blue
  31. caespitosus, a, um = tufted
  32. campanulatus, a, um = bell-shaped
  33. candidus, a, um = white
  34. capillaris, e = hair-like
  35. capitatus, a, um = having a head
  36. carneus, a, um = flesh-colorured
  37. caudatus, a, um = with a tail
  38. caulescens = with a stem
  39. chrysanthus, a, um = with golden flowers
  40. ciliatus, a, um = fringed with hairs
  41. cinereus, a, um = ash-coloured
  42. citrinus, a, um = citron-yellow
  43. coccineus, a, um = scarlet
  44. coeruleus, a, um = sky-blue
  45. columnaris, e = columnar
  46. communis, e = common
  47. compactus, a, um = compact
  48. cordatus, a, um = heart-shaped
  49. cordifolius, a, um = with heart-shaped leaves
  50. cornutus, a, um = horned
  51. coronarius, a, um = used for making garlands
  52. corymbosus, a, um = corymbose
  53. crispus, a, um = with curled or wavy margins
  54. cristatus, a, um = crested
  55. cuspidatus, a, um = ending in a sharp, stiff point
  56. cyaneus, a, um = dark blue
  57. decumbens = with prostrate stems, the tips ascending
  58. densiflorus, a, um = with dense flowers
  59. dentatus, a, um = toothed
  60. diffusus, a, um = loosely spreading
  61. discolor = of different colours
  62. divaricatus, a, um = widely spreading
  63. diversifolium, a, um = with variable leaves
  64. elatior, ius = taller
  65. elatus, a, um = tall
  66. elegans = elegant
  67. erectus, a, um = erect
  68. esculentus, a, um = edible
  69. excelsior, ius = noble
  70. excelsus, a, um = tall
  71. falcatus, a, um = shaped like a sickle
  72. farinosus, a, um = mealy
  73. fastuosus, a, um = proud
  74. ferox = very thorny
  75. ferrugineus, a, um = rust-coloured
  76. filifolius, a, um = with thread-like leaves
  77. fistulosus, a, um = tubular
  78. flaccidus, a, um = weak
  79. flavus, a, um = yellow
  80. flexuosus, a, um = tortuous, winding
  81. flore-pleno = with double flowers
  82. floribundus, a, um = free-flowering
  83. foetidissimus, a, um = very foetid
  84. formosus, a, um = beautiful
  85. fragilis, e = brittle
  86. fragrans = sweet-scented
  87. frutescens = shrubby
  88. fulvus, a, um = reddish-yellow
  89. germanicus, a, um = from Germany
  90. giganteus, a, um = huge
  91. glaber, bra, brum = smooth
  92. glandulosus, a, um = glandular
  93. glaucus, a, um = covered with a greyish bloom; blue-grey
  94. globosus, a, um = spherical
  95. glomeratus, a, um = clustered in a round mass
  96. glutinosus, a, um = sticky
  97. gracilis, e = graceful
  98. gramineus, a, um = grass-like
  99. grandiflorus, a, um = with large flowers
  100. grandis, e = large
  101. guttatus, a, um = spotted
  102. hastatus, a, um = spear-shaped
  103. hederaceus, a, um = ivy-like
  104. helianthus, a, um = sun-flower
  105. herbaceus, a, um = herbaceous, not woody
  106. heterophyllus, a, um = with leaves of different kinds
  107. hirsutus, a, um = hairy
  108. hispidus, a, um = bristly
  109. hortensis, e = of the garden
  110. humilis, e = low-growing
  111. hybridus, a, um = hybrid
  112. imperialis, e = imperial
  113. inermis, e = unarmed, without spines
  114. inodorus, a, um = scentless
  115. integrifolius, a, um = with entire leaves
  116. laciniatus, a, um = divided into narrow lobes as though torn
  117. lactiflorus, a, um = with milk-coloured flowers
  118. laevigatus, a um = smooth
  119. laevis, e = smooth
  120. lanatus, a, um = woolly
  121. lanceolatus, a, um = lance-shaped
  122. lanuginosus, a, um = woolly
  123. latifolius, a, um = with broad leaves
  124. linearis, e = linear
  125. littoralis, e = from the sea-shore
  126. lobatus, a, um = lobed
  127. longiflorus, a, um = with long flowers
  128. longifolius, a, um = with long leaves
  129. luteus, a, um = yellow
  130. lyratus, a, um = lyrate
  131. macranthus, a, um = with large flowers
  132. macrocarpus, a, um = with large fruit
  133. macrophyllus, a, um = with large leaves
  134. maculatus, a, um = spotted
  135. magnificus, a, um = magnificent
  136. major, us = great
  137. marginatus, a, um = margined
  138. maritimus, a, um = found growing on the coast
  139. marmoratus, a, um = mottled
  140. matronalis, e = belonging to a married woman
  141. maximus, a, um = largest
  142. medius, a, um = intermediate
  143. melliferus, a, um = bearing honey
  144. meridionalis, e = found towards the South
  145. micranthus, a, um = with small flowers
  146. microcarpus, a, um = with small fruit
  147. minimus, a, um = smallest
  148. minor, us = small
  149. mirabilis, e = wonderful
  150. mollis, e = soft
  151. monstrosus, a, um = monstrous
  152. montanus, a, um = found in mountainous places
  153. moschatus, a um = musk-scented
  154. multiflorus, a, um = with many flowers
  155. multipunctatus, a, um = marked with numerous dots
  156. muralis, e = found growing on walls
  157. mutabilis, e = variable
  158. nanus, a, um = dwarf
  159. nervosus, a, um = nerved
  160. niger, ra rum = black
  161. nitidus, a, um = shining
  162. nivalis, e = found growing in or near snow
  163. niveus, a, um = snow-white
  164. nutans = nodding
  165. oblongatus, a, um = oblong
  166. occidentalis, e = western
  167. odoratus, a, um = fragrant
  168. officinalis, e = used medicinally
  169. officinarum = of the apothecaries
  170. oleraceus, a, um = eaten as a vegetable
  171. oppositifolius, a, um = with opposite leaves
  172. orbicularis, e = round
  173. orientalis, e = eastern
  174. ornatus, a, um = adorned
  175. ovatus, a, um = ovate
  176. pallidus, a, um = pale
  177. palmatus, a, um = lobed like a hand
  178. palustris, e = found growing in swampy places
  179. paniculatus, a, um = paniculate
  180. parviflorus, a, um = with small flowers
  181. pauciflorus, a, um = few-flowered
  182. peltatus, a, um = target-shaped
  183. pendulus, a, um = pendulous
  184. peregrinus, a, um = foreign
  185. perennis, e = perennial
  186. perfoliatus, a, um = with the leaf surrounding the stem
  187. petiolaris, e = with stalked leaves
  188. pictus, a, um = painted
  189. pilosus, a, um = soft-hairy
  190. pinnatus, a, um = with leaflets arranged on each side of a common petiole
  191. plicatus, a, um = folded
  192. plumosus, a, um = feathery
  193. pluvialis, e = produced by rain
  194. polyanthus, a, um = with many flowers
  195. praecox, ocis = early flowering
  196. procumbens = lying along the ground
  197. prostratus, a, um = prostrate
  198. pubescens = covered with downy hairs
  199. pudicus, a, um = retiring
  200. pulcherrimus, a, um = very beautiful
  201. pulcher, chra, chrum = beautiful
  202. pulverulentus, a, um = dusty
  203. pumilus, a, um = dwarf
  204. punctatus, a, um = marked with dots
  205. pungens = sharp-pointed, pricking
  206. purpuratus, a, um = purple
  207. purpureus, a, um = purple
  208. pusillus, a, um = insignificant
  209. pygmaeus, a, um = dwarf
  210. pyramidalis, e = pyramidal
  211. quinquefolius, a, um = with five leaves
  212. racemosus, a, um = with flowers borne in racemes
  213. ramosissimus, a, um = much branched
  214. ramosus, a, um = branched
  215. reticulatus,m a, um = covered with a network of veins
  216. rivularis, e = found growing beside brooks
  217. robustus, a, um = robust
  218. roseus, a, um = rose-coloured
  219. rotundifolius, a, um = with round leaves
  220. ruber, ra, rum = red
  221. rubiginosus, a, um = rusty-red
  222. rugosus, a, um = wrinkled
  223. rupicola = found growing on rocks or cliffs
  224. sagitatus, a, um = arrow-shaped
  225. sanguineus, a, um = blood-red
  226. sativus, a, um = cultivated
  227. saxatilis, e = found growing among rocks
  228. scandens = climbing
  229. scoparius, a, um = like a twig broom
  230. semperflorens = ever-flowering
  231. sempervirens = evergreen
  232. septentrionalis, e = from the North
  233. serotinus, a, um = produced late in the season
  234. serratus, a, um = saw-toothed
  235. setosus, a, um = bristly
  236. simplex = unbranched
  237. simplicifolius, a, um = with simple leaves
  238. somniferus, a, um = sleep-bringing
  239. speciosus, a, um = showy
  240. spectabilis, e = spectacular
  241. spicatus, a, um = bearing spikes
  242. spinosus, a, um = spiny
  243. splendens = splendid
  244. stellaris, e = star-like
  245. stellatus, a, um = with spreading, star-like rays
  246. sterilis, e = sterile
  247. striatus, a, um = striped or fluted
  248. strictus, a, um = erect
  249. suaveolens = sweet-scented
  250. succulentus, a, um = fleshy
  251. suffruticosus, a, um = somewhat shrubby
  252. sulphureus, a, um = sulphur-yellow
  253. superbus, a, um = superb
  254. sylvaticus, a, um = found growing in woods
  255. sylvestris, e = found wild
  256. tenuiflorus, a, um = with slender flowers
  257. tenuifolius, a, um = with slender leaves
  258. tigrinus, a, um = striped like a tiger
  259. tinctorius, a, um = used in dyeing
  260. tomentosus, a, um = covered with fine, matted hairs
  261. tricolor = in three colours
  262. tripartitus, a, um = three-parted
  263. tristis, e = dull
  264. truncatus, a, um = cut off square at the end
  265. tuberosus, a, um = tuberous
  266. umbellatus, a, um = with umbels
  267. umbrosus, a, um = found growing in shady places
  268. undulatus, a, um = wavy
  269. urens = stinging
  270. variabilis, e = variable
  271. variegatus, a, um = variegated
  272. venustus, a, um = charming
  273. vernalis, e = flowering in spring
  274. vernus, a, um = flowering in spring
  275. versicolor = changing color
  276. verticillatus, a, um = whorled
  277. villosus, a, um = covered with soft hairs
  278. violaceus, a, um = violet
  279. virens = green
  280. viscosus, a, um = sticky
  281. vulgaris, e = common
  282. zebrinus, a, um = zebra-striped

Looking for A Definition?

Not all botanical names appear on the list above, but here is a great place to find the meaning of even the most obscure names: Botanary. I visit the site all the time!