Decoding Botanical Latin

Posted by on December 20, 2014

Whats-in-a-name-150x150Botanical Latin for many home gardeners can seem overwhelming, and indeed at times the system seems to have overwhelmed the keepers of the flame. But if you break down each aspect of the Latin name–each string of words to describe the plant–the language makes sense even for us non-botanist.

The botanical Latin that scientists use today is very different than what was once used by Roman scholars. Since that time, and well into the 18th century, Latin was the language of international scholarship. It only made sense it was the vocabulary used in scientific circles. No different than today with English being used as the international language for air traffic controllers. A common language makes it easier in the long run.

Botanical Latin has developed into a specialized technical dialect that can accept changes as they are learned or broadened. In 18th century, Carl Linnaeus introduced his two-word, or binomial system for naming plants and animals, by which a single epithet distinguished the species from all others in its genus. This is the basis of what eventually lead to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), published in 1952, and revised several times since. 

As lay gardeners watching some recent changes in botanical Latin, it has been frustrating. Supposedly, Latin’s a dead language, right? How can it change? While the plants haven’t necessarily changed, the technology to identify them has. DNA analysis has led to some significant discoveries. It’s not only freeing wrongly accused criminals, it is more accurately identifying how a plant should be classified. The good news, DNA is the final word…or so they say.

What Is The Code For Botanical Latin?
Here is a simplified outline of the binomial system — decoding the sting of words. Let’s use Oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, as the example. There are many exceptions, as you can imagine, but this gives you a good, basic understanding.

A group of plants in related genera that share common reproductive characteristics. Oakleaf hydrangea is in the family of Hydrangeaceae. Only the first letter is capitalized, and the ICBN recommends italics. Family names are easily recognized as they end in -aceae. NOTE: The program does not allow for italics, thus, the examples are not accurately demonstrated.

A group of species that share common characteristics. The plural term is genera. In our example, the genus name is Hydrangea. This appears in italics with an uppercase initial letter. When listing several species of the same genus together, the genus name is often abbreviated, for example, Hydrangea macrophylla, H. quercifolia, H. japonica, and H. Involucrata. The genus is a noun and has a gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter.

A group of plants that share a common gene pool and can freely interbreed. The species name is always binomial (two words): genus name + specific epithet. In our example, the species name is Hydrangea quercifolia. The specific epithet appears in all lowercase letters and is also styled in italics. It is mostly an adjective, and will always agree in gender with the noun they follow. The specific epithet can sometimes be a noun.

Subspecies appears as lowercase italics and is preceded by the abbreviated form subsp. (or occasionally ssp.), written as lowercase Roman type. A subspecies is a distinct variant of the main species. Continuing with a different hydrangea example, climbing hydrangea’s botanical name is Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris.

Variety or varieties appears as lowercase italics and is preceded by the abbreviated form var., written as lowercase Roman type. A variety is used to recognize a slight variation in botanical structure that’s found in nature. (Varieties and cultivars are very similar, varieties are found in nature while cultivars are discovered in cultivation.)

Also known as form; a forma distinguishes minor variations such as the color of the flower. Forma appears as lowercase italics and is preceded by the abbreviated form f., written as lowercase Roman type such as Hydrangea macrophylla f. normalis.)

Specific Epithet
Word combined with a genus name, to define a species. Specific epithet is quercifolia; the combination of the generic and specific epithet gives us the species name in the binomial, or two-word system.

A cultivated variety of a species or hybrid. Cultivar appears as upper- and lowercase Roman type with single quotation marks. It can also be referred to as a named or cultivated variety.

A hybrid is a crossing of species from other genera. They can be between species in the same genus, referred to as interspecific hybrids (common hybrids between different species within the same genus, such as between lions and tigers.) Or they can be a rarer hybrid cross from different genera, referred to as intergeneric hybrids, such as between sheep and goats.) 

The hybrid generic name is preceded by a multiplication sign. A hybrid appears as upper and lower case italics and is preceded by multiplication sign that is not italicized. If a chimeral hybrid results from the grafting of species, then it is indicated by and plus sign; not a multiplication sign.

There are cases where two or more botanists have given the same plant different names or when a plant is classified in different ways. These are known as synonyms (abbreviated as syn.) An example would be wild hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens, syn: H. arborescens subsp. arborescens.

As new cultivars of plants are being introduced to the trade, they are given trademark names. For example the trademarked oakleaf hydrangea Snow Queen is often incorrectly written as a cultivar name. Hydrangea quercifolia “Snow Queen” is actually Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Flemygea’. Botanists typically do not deal with cultivars.

Common Name
The local name given to a plant is referred to as the common name. Many plants have one or more common names and some, no common name at all. The common name for Hydrangea quercifolia is oakleaf hydrangea. Common names appear as lowercase Roman type except when derive from a noun. With regards to our example of the hydrangea, a common name in some circles for hydrangea is know as “hortensia.” As you can imagine, the use of common names often leads to confusion since they’re not used universally.

Botanical Latin doesn’t have to be confusing, and fear for not saying it incorrectly shouldn’t stop you from embracing the proper names of the plants you love to know and grow.


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Helen Yoest is a curious gardener – curious about plants, soil, design, and how others use these to create their gardens at home. She is also curious about what plants do for us today in the here and now, but also about their history and lore. Plants have a colorful past.

As an award winning freelance writer and garden stylist, Helen has traveled the world visiting public and private gardens so she can step into the dream that was once just an imagination. Her work has appeared in Country Gardens, Better Homes and Gardens, Martha Stewart Living, Carolina Gardener, and many others, including her work as the national gardening expert Helen is also the author of Plants With Benefits: An Uninhibited Guide to the Aphrodisiac Herbs, Fruits, Flowers, & Veggies in Your Garden (2014, St. Lynn’s Press) and Gardening with Confidence, 50 Ways to Add Style for Personal Creativity (2012, GWC Press).

Helen curates garden art, serves on the board of the JC Raulston Arboretum, is past Regional Representative of the Garden Conservancy Open Days tour and opens her garden annually, and is an honorary member of Pi Alpha Xi, the national honor society for floriculture, landscape horticulture and ornamental horticulture. Helen lives in Raleigh, N.C., tending to her half-acre wildlife habitat, her husband, and their three beautiful children.

Visit Helen at her popular blog, Gardening With Confidence and at Plants with Benefits. Find Helen on Facebook, too.

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