How Plants Are Named - Indiana Yard and Garden - Purdue Consumer Horticulture

How Plants Are Named

Plants have names, just like people do. Sometimes two or more plants share the same name, or an individual plant may be known by several different names, depending on local and family traditions. So the everyday, common names we give plants can be confusing to gardeners.

To make the naming of plants more precise and universal, an international system of naming plants is used by scientists and plant professionals. Known as the “International Code of Botanical Nomenclature,” the code is based on a two-name (binomial) system developed by the famous botanist Linnaeus. Each plant is given a first name and last name, generally based in Latin, that is unique to each species. This name is recognized for that plant throughout the world, no matter what the native language might be.

Plants are grouped by their botanical similarities. A botanical family of plants shares certain characteristics such as foliage and flower form. For example, members of the carrot family generally bear flowers in umbrella-like clusters and have oil glands in the foliage. The family includes such notable members as carrot, Queen Anne’s lace, parsley, coriander, cumin, celery and parsnip.

Plants are then further grouped by even more similar characteristics. The first name of a botanical binomial is the genus name. Within the rose family for example, one would find Prunus (the group of plants we commonly call stone fruits), Malus (apples and crabapples), Rubus (bramble-type berries), and Rosa (the garden roses).

The second name of a botanical binomial is called the species name. This narrows down the identity to a specific species of plant. For example, the common name maple refers to a genus of plants known botanically as Acer. The sugar maple is a species within the genus Acer known botanically as saccharum. Thus, the botanical name for sugar maple is Acer saccharum. From Germany to France to Russia to China, Acer saccharum is recognized as the plant we call sugar maple in the United States.

In nature, sometimes a particular species that is subjected to unique growing conditions might eventually produce a variant from the species that then reproduces itself. For instance, the species we call peach, Prunus persica, normally produces a fruit that is quite fuzzy on the outside of the skin. At some point, this species was found to have produced a few offspring trees whose fruit had smooth skin. Botanists call this a “variety” of the normal species. This smooth skinned peach is commonly called a nectarine, but botanically is known as Prunus persica variety nucipersica.

Among horticultural plants, it is common for new variations of species to be produced by means of cultivation techniques, hybridization, or even encouragement of mutations. This type of variation is called a cultivar, or cultivated variety. For example, many hybrid tomatoes are developed by breeders to improve flavor, shipping quality, disease resistance or simply to make a smaller plant. The botanical name for a ‘Patio’ tomato is Lycopersicon esculentum ‘Patio.’ Or the same name might be written as Lycopersicon esculentum cv. ‘Patio’.

While it may sometimes seem a bit daunting to pronounce these botanical names, gardeners should endeavor to at least know how to find a reference to such names, particularly when trying to acquire new plants. If you admire a plant that you just have to have for your garden, determining the appropriate botanical name is the only sure way to find the right plant in the market place.


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