Botanical Names

November 1, 2016

Anyone who gardens should attempt to learn the scientific (or botanical) names of their plants (genus and species). Also their classification, families, origin, name meanings and perhaps any unique characteristics. Common names of plants leave much to be desired. They change geographically and can be called many different names throughout the United States. Language changes in other countries create a whole new set of common names that may or may not match what we have in the United States.

The process of learning the scientific (or botanical) names is a slow one and a continuous one but well worth the effort. Some record keeping strategies would help. A simple notebook is a good place to start. Any size, any shape and any style that feels comfortable and can be kept handy. A loose-leaf notebook can be started with an alphabetical listing of your own plants. This project is a bit more work but over time photos can be added, information can be updated and ultimately a nice horticultural journal results, tailor-made to your own garden.

Another method is to keep an A to Z list of genus names along with the appropriate plant family. Then, another list with each plant family in alphabetical order, each listing the appropriate genus. This “two-list” system is cumbersome but easily done with a computer. Without a computer it would be a nightmare.

Whatever method appeals and regardless of how long you have been gardening, a starting point can be made at any time.

Knowing the two-part genus and species name will assist you in catalog purchases, internet confirmation and also directly shopping in local nurseries. Every plant has this two-part name. The genus name comes first and is always capitalized. The species name is next and never capitalized. Both names are normally written in italics. The genus Sedum is a good example. The entire Sedum genus is in the Crassulaceae family, which also contains Jade plants (Crassula argentea) and Sempervivum tectorum (hen and chicks). Sedums come in many sizes and shapes as there are over 600 species. Most are called “stonecrops”, their common name. Using the botanical name can eliminate confusion amongst the many species. For example, “English stonecrop” is actually Sedum anglicum (with white flowers), “shortleaf stonecrop” is Sedum cauticola (bright pink flowers) and “yellow stonecrop” is Sedum reflexum (golden yellow flowers).

Another plant exists, also called “shortleaf stonecrop” that is actually Sedum brevifolium. This plant has white flowers, rather than the other “shortleaf stonecrop” above (Sedum cauticola) that has pink flowers.

Botanical names (generally Latin or Greek) may also give a clue as to certain characteristics of a particular plant. Lavandula (lavender) is from the Greek lavare “to wash” from the Greek and Roman tradition of adding lavender to scent bath water. Achillea (yarrow) is named for Achilles who used the plant to heal wounds. Salvia (sage) is from the Latin salvio “I save” from various medical uses. Thymus (thyme) is from the Greek thymin “to fumigate”.

Once the genus and species of a plant is confirmed, each plant within the species basically looks the same. Some may be bigger, younger, have more or less flowers, better or worse growing conditions, soil, etc., but still they pretty much look alike. Sometimes, in nature, a variation can occur that is consistent within a species. These consistent variations are called “varieties” or “subspecies” and are written with non-italics “VAR” between the species name and the variety name. For example, Amaranthus tricolor var. salicifolius is a variety of Amaranthus that has variegated leaves that resemble willow leaves (salicifolius is from Salix, the botanical name for “willow”).

Once gardeners or growers are cultivating plants, they are no longer subjected to “nature” per se and can be propagated in such a way that a wide variety can be created within a species. A certain flower color, a dwarf growing habit, an amazing fragrance are examples of variations within the species. If these differences from the original species in nature are continued and passed along by re-seeding or asexual propagation, they are called “cultivars”. The word “cultivar” is short for the words “cultivated variety”. The names of these cultivars follow the species name, always start with capital letters, are never italicized and contain single quotation marks as in: Aconitum ‘Blue Lagoon’, Aquilegia caerulea ‘Red Hobbit’ and Penstemon ‘Mystica’.

The month of November is really a pleasant time to work in the garden. The days are mild with chilly nights and frost at daybreak. There is still plenty of work to do at this time: Weeding, mulching, turning compost piles, harvesting late fall vegetables, cutting back asparagus stalks and raspberry canes, cleaning up potager beds and adding compost for spring planting. There are still the last fallen leaves to be raked and shredded. All the while each plant is preparing for winter dormancy.

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