Making Sense of Botanical Names
There was a story going around recently about an English-speaking woman who was visiting China and felt very lost because she could not communicate with the people very well. Being an avid gardener, she, of course, visited some of the beautiful Chinese gardens, and while puzzling over the precise species of a certain plant, was approached by a Chinese gardener who apparently knew what she was doing from the few Latin words she was using. He said the proper species name, and then they had a lovely time going around the garden conversing in “botanicalese”!
If we look beyond the intimidating Latin names for plants, a very simple classification system is revealed. All plants are identified according to a binomial system–bi meaning two, nom meaning name. So all plants have two names (see, now, that was easy – that’s all there is to it, really…) – the genus and the species.
Just as you have a first name and a last name, so does every plant. Your last name identifies you generically as being part of a particular group – Smith, Jones, or Mentha. Your first name identifies you, specifically – Sally, George, or Piperata (Pip for short). When writing your name to be classified, as on a government form, you put your generic name first, followed by your specific name — Smith, Sally; Jones, George; Mentha piperata (the species name is not capitalized in scientific names). So peppermint, Mentha piperata, is identified as being a mint by the generic, or genus, name mentha, and then is given individuality by the specific name piperata.
But what happens when several related people, with the same generic name, are also given the same specific name? Margaret, for example – they all look different, but how do we differentiate among them in conversation, when we cannot point to them and say “that Margaret, not the other one”? We use nicknames, Meg, Margie, Maggie, Peggy. These are like names of plant varieties.
The variety is a subgroup name in which the plant differs only slightly from the species. This further delineates a specific plant. It is shown in Latin notation following the genus and species and the abbreviation var., as in Mentha piperata var. variegata, the peppermint with the white-variegated leaves.
A cultivar — cultivated variety — is a kind of variety that can only be maintained by human cultivation – it does not come true from seed or reproduce itself in nature. Hybrid plants are cultivars. The cultivar name is set off in one of three ways – by putting the abbreviation cv. before it, as in Ilex cornuta cv. Burfordii; by using boldface type; or most commonly, by enclosing it in single quotes, as in Camellia japonica `Debutante.’
By the way, the italics are used only because it is proper, in writing, to italicize words that are in any language other than English.
Each Latin botanical name is actually a fascinating puzzle that can tell you a great deal about the plant and how it is identified. The genus name is always a noun; mentha – it is a mint. The species name is commonly an adjective describing the genus name; piperata – it is like pepper (strong, pungent, and spicy). So Mentha piperata is peppery mint. The species name of a plant can tell you what color its flowers are (albus = white, coccineus = scarlet), what it smells like (foetida = fetid or stinky, perfumatissima = like perfume), where it originates (chinensis = China, virginiana = Virginia), its natural habitat (aquatica = water, arvensis = field), or its form and habit (reptans = creeping, gracilis = graceful or slender). Other species names are a little more complex, as in grandiflora; the prefix grandi- means large, flora means flower. Other common prefixes include leuco- (white), macro- (long or large), semper- (always), and brevi- (short).
Sometimes we can recognize only part of the plant name, but it may be possible to guess the rest, since many English words are derived from Latin. If we are shown the name Maranta leuconeura, from what we have learned here we can say that whatever maranta is, this particular maranta has something white (leuco-). Study the part you don’t know – neura – it sounds like neuralgia or neurosis, which have to do with nerves; nerves also means lines or veins. The leaves of the nerve plant, Maranta leuconeura, do indeed have whitish veins. Common sense and a little vocabulary exercise can help you understand many plant names.
(R. Peter Madsen and Alan McDaniel, Professors of Horticulture, Virginia Tech)