Does anyone REALLY have any idea how many different plants there are on our planet. New plants are constantly being discovered. The Flora of North America Project will treat more than 20,000 species of plants native or naturalized in North America north of Mexico, about 7% of the world’s total. Both vascular plants and bryophytes are included.
FYI: Bryophytes are a group consisting of three divisions of non-vascular land plants (embryophytes), the liverworts, hornworts and mosses.
With such large numbers, it is quite obvious that turmoil is just a marigold away, unless there is a system that provides every plant with it’s own exlusive unique name.
I say gratefully that a slick system is already in place, and it allows plant people the world over to correspond with a given name, and that, even if they speak different languages. It was invented by a Swedish fellow named Carl von Linne (Carl Linnaeus) in 1753 (or so), it has been literally used for centuries.
Find out more about Carl Linnaeus at The Linnean Society of London. But there is one thing about Linnaeus’s system that scares people – it’s in Latin. Why do you suppose he did that? It is spoken by almost no one, but it truly is a ubiquitous written language. So gardeners in Singapore, Edinburgh, Sydney , and Dallas will all know what Coriandrum sativums is – the green plant (if you don’t EAT it first) that the culinary spice Coriander is harvested.
Why Do We Not Call a Plant by it’s ‘common name’?
It can cause confusion as a single common name sometimes refers to several different plants. For example, in the UK, woodbine is the common name for honeysuckle (Lonicera pericyclamenum), while in the US it is used to mean a clematis (Clematis virginiana).
Even in the UK some of their common wild flowers have many different common names (not always polite!) depending on what part of their country you are in.
But don’t be put off. Latin names are as easy to use as common names.
Genus and species
Just think of plant names like your family name followed by your Christian name: Titchmarsh Alan, except that plants are called by their Genus and species: Rosa rugosa.
Etiquette demands that the Latin name be in italics, with a capital letter for the Genus, lower case for the species.
So, I hear you cry, some plants have three Latin names, separated by subsp., or var. Some have an ‘x’. And what’s with the words in quote marks that aren’t in italics? Well, here goes…
Subspecies, varieties and forms
In the wild, there will be the ‘species’ plant, which just has the Genus and species name. But nature is a contrary beast and plants may evolve that are very similar to the ‘species’ but have subtle differences.
A subspecies is a distinct variant, usually based on geographical location, and its name is written Genus species subsp. Subspecies. For example, here’s a spurge called Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii.
A variety is a plant that has a slightly different natural botanical structure. Its name is written Genus species var. variety. For example, Phyllostachys nigra var. henonis is a variety of black bamboo.
A form is a plant that has a minor difference to the species, such as leaf color, flower color or fruit. Its name is written Genus species f. form. The form Rosa rugosa f. alba has white flowers. Often the ‘f’ is left out, so you will see the name written Rosa rugosa alba.
Cultivars and hybrids
A cultivar is any new plant that comes about in cultivation (rather than in the wild). This is regardless of whether the new plant was ‘planned’ – the result of a plant breeder deliberately hybridizing (crossing) two plants of the same genus – or whether it is an accident – the result of plants doing it themselves! The cultivar name is written Genus species ‘Cultivar’, for example, Rosa rugosa ‘Scabrosa’. Etiquette demands that a capital letter is used for the cultivar name and that it is in quotation marks.
Sometimes the parents’ names are not known, or have been lost in the mists of time, so only the Genus and Cultivar names are used. For example, Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ or Phormium ‘Sundowner’.
A hybrid is a new plant that is the result of a cross between two botanically distinct species. The name x Genus species. Most crosses occur at species level. For example; Forsythia x intermedia ‘Lynwood’, which is as a result of crossing Forsythia suspensa with Forsythia viridissima.
Another great benefit of Latin names is that you can see quickly which plants are related as they have the same Genus name. There are more than 3,000 types of rose available in ONE country!
And if you really ‘get into’ names you’ll find that every Genus belongs to a bigger group called a family. So, believe it or not, tomatoes, potatoes, chillies and deadly nightshade all belong to the same family, called Solanaceae. Then there are roses, strawberries, pears, apples, and hawthorn – they are ALL members of the Rosaceae family!
Learning the Latin names
As you learn a bit of Latin, you will find you can often tell something about a plant from its name. Find out more about Latin naming with our fun game!
alba/albus = white
coccinea/coccineus = scarlet
caerulea/caeruleus = blue
foetida/feotidus = smelly
fragans/fragrantissima = scented
chinensis = China
virginiana/virginianus = Virginia
aquatica/auquaticus = water
arvensis = field
reptans = creeping
gracilis = slender
Sometimes a prefix or suffix is used:
grandi- = large
leuco- = white
macro- = long or large
semper- = always
brevi- = short
-issima = very (foetidissima = very smelly!)