Botanical Binomials - What Do Plant Names Mean?

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If you are a backyard gardener, like me, your introduction to plant names came from seed packets, seed catalogs, and plant labels at the nursery or garden center, and those were invariably common names. The alternate name is often referred to as the "scientific name" or the "latin name".  Those are mistakes. They are neither scientific nor latin.  You don't personally know anyone who speaks scientific or latin; those are not languages.  The archaic nature of latin has reduced that former language, through disuse and misuse, to mere notation.  The real and only name of any plant is the botanical name.

Botanical names have the distinct advantage of referring to one and only one plant, with certain exceptions.  The use of these names makes communication between widely scattered gardeners more precise.  Now that the internet has made this planet as small as the street where you live, it is more important than ever to insure that we are both referring to the same plant if discussions are to have any meaning.  If you point out a sunflower to a neighbor, there is understanding. If you ask me why your sunflower seedlings are bending over in the middle, I can guess that you may have applied too much fertilizer, but I have no idea what plant you are growing; there are many genera of sunflowers.

Well, I just used a strange word.  Genera is the plural of genus, and genus is one of the components of a plant name.  The binomial system of naming all organisms on this earth groups them into various kingdoms, divisions, orders, families, and genera.  So, the genus is the basic grouping of similarity or relationship between organisms.  It is at this level that we want to be more specific, and that is done by adding another word which is called the "specific epithet."  The combination of genus and specific epithet into a single phrase called the "species" is the basic component of botanical nomenclature.  There are finer divisions such as cultivar, variety, and subspecies which describe minor variations, but "species" is the level at which gardeners operate.


Genus is the name given to a group of organisms whose physical characteristics are permanent and similar, and largely confined to that group.  In Latin, it is a naming noun derived in part from medieval Latin, classical Latin, and latinized versions of words in other languages, principally Greek.  Is there any wonder why these words seem foreign to you?  

Solanum, for example, is a Latin word for a group of plants which includes herbs, shrubs, trees, and vines.  There are 1400 species in this group.  Wow, wouldn't you think that they could have broken this down into smaller groups?  Well, no  --  they all are slightly to heavily toxic, clammy to hairy plants with star to bell-shaped flowers with five lobes whose fruit is always a berry (yes, the fruit of the eggplant is a berry.)

At the other extreme, there is the genus Nicandra which consists of a single species.  It is not a Solanum because it shares only the flower structure, and none of the other characteristics. Nicandra shares characteristics with other genera, like Physalis, but is otherwise unique, and thus deserving of its own name.  It was named after a Greek botanist, Nikander of Colophon (c. 150AD).

So, you can see that a genus may get its name in honor of a person.  It may get its name from its origins, i.e. what native peoples called it where it was discovered.  Most typically, the name comes from one or more of the most prominent characteristics among those which define the group.  Helipterum, for example, comes from the Greek (helios=sun) and (pteron=wing).  Horribly, the 26 letters of the English language were so confining (back in the 18th Century), that a number of generic names are simply anagrams of existing genera, yielding names such as Sibara, Norysca, Ubochea, and Zacateza.  A few are anagrams of geographic places such as Lobivia and Jacaima.

You can see that Genus, for all practical purposes is just a name. Despite a bit of archaic, botanical, or honorary meaning, it may as well be a joke.  Besides, they are subject to change.  Chrysanthemum members were recently split off to join other groups, such as Dendranthema, Leucanthemum, and Tanacetum. Those that went to Dendranthema are now on their way back to Chrysanthemum, I understand.  Taxonomy is the scientific study of the proper classification of organisms so that there will be no confusion.  Unfortunately, there are many botanic systematists engaged in this field, instead of just the one, like I recommend.  Systematics must be the most engaging area of Botany, because there is no level in the classification of plants which is not under assault.  During your lifetime, a single species could be moved from one family to another, or even to a different order.  Even today, some botanists would prefer that the common tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) be instead  -- Solanum Lycopersicum. The result is that suggestions for renaming, and the reasons therefore, must go before a committee.  Well  --  you know the rest. One committee decides what goes on the agenda. Another committee will investigate the proposed change, while another will interpret the International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature for consistency.  The main committee will be split into cliques and coalitions which decide by using a bartering process, as in any committee.  That beloved game is reserved for and enjoyed by botanists the world over; it is not your concern.

In summary, a genus is a group of plants sharing a unique set of common characteristics which have been given the same first name, no more and no less.  

Specific epithet

The second word in the botanical binomial is the specific epithet.  It has meaning or it has no meaning of its own, subject to the same lack of rules, abundance of rules, and avoidance of rules as found above.  For every specific epithet that has a scrap of meaning in its archaic latinized history, there is another which has been invented playfully or otherwise, and which has no meaning whatever.

The specific epithet, when added to the genus to form the binomial, now becomes the species, and this is what sets one plant apart from another within the genus.

A specific epithet may be a noun or an adjective.

It may indicate a distinguishing characteristic of structure or flower color in the species. Elatus, for example, is an adjective meaning tall.

It may indicate something about the habitat where a species happens to flourish. Palustris, for example, is an adjective meaning from swampy places.

It may indicate the location where the species was first discovered. Monspeliensis, for example, means from Montpelier.

It may honor a person. Davisii, for example, means Mr. Davis

There are thousands of specific epithets.  Some are used only once, and never applied to any other plant. Some are used across many different genera. Worse yet, they have prefixes, suffixes, and different endings depending upon other criteria. After all, these "words" were derived from an archaic language, so there must be some kind of rules, you might think.  After all, botanists are trusted scientific persons, right?  

I will try to show how some of the specific epithets that actually have an historic meaning are constructed.  As for the rest, you just have to grin and bear it.

Prefixes are numerous both in the Latin and the Greek languages. Atro, for example,  is a qualifying word meaning "dark", as in atropurpureus.  The prefix changes the meaning from purple to dark purple.  Intra and endo, for example, are the Latin and Greek prefixes, respectively, meaning "within". Lists of prefixes and their meanings are to be found in reference #1. New epithets are invented from time to time, and their meanings require a little guessing if you cannot find them in the references.  Monarda austromontana, for example, leads one to believe that this Monarda is native to (australis=south, southern) plus (montana=from the mountains), therefore "from the mountains to the south."  And, in fact, this plant comes from such peaks that exist in Southwestern USA, notably from the States of New Mexico and Arizona.  In my flatland garden, I am sure that it grows much taller than seen in its native habitat.

Suffixes permit a wide variety of words to be formed from a single word.  Ulentus is a Latin suffix meaning "abundance", as in succulentus, "full of juice".  Oides is a Greek suffix meaning "resembles", as in Boltonia asteroides, "like an aster". Don't be put off by near-misses  --  Odes has the same effect, as in physalodes, "like a physalis".  It does help to know the meaning of the most common prefixes and suffixes, because they will help you to understand the meaning of many specific epithets without have to look them up.  Long lists of them are available in the references below, to memorize in case you get on a quiz show.

You have probably thought of Latin as too complex and convoluted a language to bother with, and you are right.  It taxes the brain unnecessarily to contemplate nouns which have gender, number, and case which depend upon the other words in the sentence.  Our medieval forefathers organized nouns into five classes which they called declensions.  Instead of an easy memory device, it emerged as another set of rules (like having many supervisors). That means that nouns in Latin change form to express relations or different genders. As you write, you have to think forward to what you are going to say in order to determine how to spell the word, all the while worrying about the words you used prior to this one. Perhaps I can make all this a bit more simple.

Remember that the genus name is usually a noun. Since the specific epithet is often an adjective, its ending may or may not  (Huh?, I'm not kidding)  reflect the gender and the declension of the noun which it follows.

Tricolor and leptorhiza are examples of adjectives without endings to reflect the noun's gender...........(and you thought that a language would have rules.)

Annuus, annua, and annuum all have exactly the same meaning, similarly, barbatus, barbata, barbatum have the same meaning. These are examples of endings of adjectives which reflect the gender of nouns. The ending will be different depending upon the gender of the genus name, i.e., masculine=(us), feminine=(a), or neutral=(um).

Humilis (humile) and mirabilis (mirabile) are examples of common adjectival endings.  

Minor (minus) and major (majus) are examples of adjectival endings.

Asper (aspera) (asperum) and glaber (glabra) (glabrum) are examples of adjectival endings which are less common, perhaps.  Look down any list of species and you will surely find specific epithets that follow no convention whatever.

In other words, the Latin language is just like nature  --  there are in effect, no rules because there is almost infinite variability. Someone decided on how the language should develop, and now the members of the appeals committee are all dead.  Here is my advice to beginning gardeners:

1.  Forget Latin  --  there is no Latin.  Treat all botanical binomials as English names.  Simply add these words to your vocabulary as you have occasion to use them.  What  --  you don't know what they mean?  You have hundreds of words in your vocabulary right now for which you don't know the meaning. Your language contains words that you have read or heard, and you repeat them while only guessing at the meaning from their context. A good gardening dictionary will give you some of the characteristics for each genus, if you get curious.  And my dictionary of specific epithets will supply some of the more commonly used meanings, if needed. The beauty of this added vocabulary is that you don't have to fill your head with definitions; you just have to remember the words themselves, and only those that you actually use. 

2.  Forget the adjectival endings  --  these are just anomalies.  The meanings of  the stems of these words remain constant across all genera.

3.  There is a range of definitions for every English word, isn't there?  Well, this is far better than English in the sense that every botanical binomial refers to one and only one plant, and that no definition of the names used is either required or useful.  Adopt these word combinations into your language, whatever your native language may be, and everyone else will understand what you mean. Understand that a synonym is not only an obsolete name, but one which has been officially discarded.  Never make reference to a synonym unless your correspondent does not recognize the correct name.  See the article on synonyms.

4. Do not do business with a seller of seeds or plants that does not provide you with the botanical name of the plant.  If they don't know what they are selling, how are you supposed to know what you are growing?  And, where in this world can you go to ask a question about a plant if you cannot say which it is? or a seed that won't germinate?  Guesses about unknown plants and seeds always result in bad advice.

When garden visitors stop by for a tour, I use only botanical names of plants if there are gardeners present because:  (1) I don't know common names for the most part, (2) botanical names are part of my English vocabulary, and (3) my wife isn't there.  When my wife is present on the tour, then I am forbidden to use botanical names. She thinks that latinized words might hurt her ears.  Well, I know a few common names, but for the most part of some hundreds of species, I have resorted to referring to them all as some unknown variety of Basil.   I don't regard that as humorous.

In summary, the language of common names of plants is the foreign language. Some common names refer to as many as 12 different species across many different genera.  Some species have as many as 12 different common names.  Those nicknames have no real meaning because they each have too many meanings to be useful. Botanical names, on the other hand, have no real meaning , however, each of them refers to one and only one plant.  That fact makes them invaluable to you.  Switch over to the use of botanical names at the earliest moment in your gardening hobby, and it will save you much time and grief later on.

Dictionary of specific epithets:

This is a listing of the most common epithets which refer to plant or flower structure, color, or environment where found. Not included are epithets which refer to a place because there are some 700 of those.  Who cares that Phrygia is an ancient region of Western Turkey in Asia Minor?  Not included are epithets which honor a person; they too, number in the hundreds.  The dictionary is alphabetic, and on a separate page to which you will have to jump (right now.)

Another site which purports to have definitions of 15,000 botanical terms ,including specific epithets, uses a search function to explore its database.


I include these few books and articles, not so much for the serious student of botanical latin, but because they prove my point.

1. Stearn, W. T., "Botanical Latin, History, Grammar, Syntax, Terminology and Vocabulary," 4th Edition, 1995, Timber Press

2. Coombes, Allen J., "The Dictionary of Plant Names", Timber Press

3. Baumgardt, John Philip, "How to Identify Flowering Plant Families", Timber Press

4. Bailey, L. H., "How Plants Get Their Names," Dover Publications, 1963

5. Tucker, A. O., "The Name Game," in "The American Gardener," Publication of The American Horticultural Society, Vol. 75, No. 3, May/June 1996, pp. 46-47

6. Kvaalen, R., "Help for the Binomially Challenged," in "The American Gardener," Publication of the AHS, Vol. 75, No. 3, May/June 1996, pp. 48-49

7. Porter, C. L., "Taxonomy of Flowering Plants," W. H. Freeman and Co, 1959

8. Moldenke, Harold N. "A Brief Course in Elementary Systematic Botany for Gardeners," 1947 s 130    This hard-to-find volume is well worth the search; it is crammed full of information not found in the other references.

9.    Scroll down to a list of oddities in the world of binomial nomenclature. Included are numerous examples which prove that names don't necessarily have to mean something scientific.  Agra phobia is the "scientific" name of a beetle.  Oedipus rex is the name of a salamander.  If a genus is named solely to amuse, or to qualify for being the shortest or longest name in the book, or to honor the name of a pop-singer from the 1950's, who is to say that latin is not English? or Swedish?  or your native language?

10. Zimmer, G. F., "A Popular Dictionary of Botanical Names and Terms with their English Equivalents"; edition 2, 1932    I have not seen this book, but it is said to contain 8500 specific epithets along with accurate meanings.


Seriously now, jumping to conclusions is not good for you. Go back to top of page.

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