About Scientific Plant Names

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This article provides a basic explanation of scientific plant names
by Brett · All Zones · Terminology · 0 Comments · August 16, 2012 · 3,170 views

Almost every plant has both a common name and scientific name. In general, gardeners tend to use the common name while plant encyclopedias, horticulturists, botanists etc., more often tend to use the scientific name. That being said, many gardeners, such as the Master Gardeners, regularly use scientific names when communicating about plants.

Common Name

The common name of a plant is often given by gardeners from around the world. In a number of instances, the same common name often refers to several different species, not to one specific plant: There are many "Bluebells", "Goldenrod", "Daisy", "Groundsel", "Geranium", "Chickweed", "Fir", "Pine". So if you want to know the name of a particular plant and someone tells you "That's a Daisy", they have just helped you about as much as someone telling you that man's name is "tall human being"; there are many different kinds of Daisies and many different people who are tall. Therefore, many plants have several common names, and many common names refer to several distinct plants which, needless to say, can make things confusing at times. Because common names often vary from region to region most plant encyclopedias and horticulturists refer to plants using their scientific names: binomials, or "Latin" names. Every plant has only one scientific name.

Scientific Names

In addition to common name, every plant also has a scientific name. Scientific names are a Latin and/or Greek name assigned by botanists to plants and accepted internationally, that is, the same exact name is used for the plant in America, China, Europe, South America, etc..

Genus and Species - The scientific name for a plant is always two-part, two words. The first word in the scientific name of a plant designates the "genus" to which the plant belongs and the second, called the "species name", gives a name to distinguish this plant from all other plants that are in the same genus. For example, in the scientific plant name Echinacea purpurea, "Echinacea" is the genus and "purpurea" is the species. So, Echinacea purpurea is the name of the species. There are many other Echinacea (coneflowers) but only one Echinacea purpurea, which is the original species of purple coneflower. No other plant in the world has the name "Echinacea purpurea." In some cases, particularly regarding certain plants hybridized by man, a plant may not have a species name, but only a genus name and a "cultivar."

Note: When used in print media, both the genus and the species names are italicized; the genus is capitalized and the species is lower case: Echinacea purpurea.

Cultivar name - In addition to genus and species there is sometimes a cultivar name. For example: Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus.' What is a cultivar? “Cultivar” is just a shortened word for “cultivated variety”. It is a plant that has been specifically selected for qualities that distinguish it from the species...or "parent plant," and then is given a cultivar name by the person or entity that found or cultivated it. A cultivar might be a hybrid, or it may be a form that is superior in some way to the wild species, and there is a range of ways this can happen or be done:

  • By deliberate breeding, where control of the fertilization process takes place by taking pollen from one plant and applying it to another,
  • By natural mutation that occurs naturally in the wild and even in gardens
  • By bush selections, either from species or from hybrids.

Natural mutations
From time to time a form of a plant is found in the wild or in cultivation that shows obviously different and unique traits to the parent - it's parent plant. These unusual and unique new forms can be the source of some wonderful new plant varieties. If you're lucky, you might find one of these growing in your own yard. Propagate it successfully and you've added a new cultivar to that species of plant!

A ‘sport’ is where a branch or single flower grows differently from the rest of the plant on which it is growing. New plant selections (cultivars) are made from these natural ‘sporting’ processes. For alert breeders and gardeners, ‘sports’ can create some incredible new garden plants.

There are also mutations, where there is a complete new color change to a plant, where a plant’s genetic resource has been bombarded by perhaps cosmic rays that changed the genetic component of that plant.

A hybrid is the result of crossing two different plant species. While some hybrids occur naturally in gardens or in the wild, breeders can produce new cultivars faster and more reliably by deliberately transferring pollen from one carefully chosen plant to another. Plants from distant areas are now propagated and grown in very limited areas, so the opportunity for promiscuous pollination occurs very strongly in gardens, and many of the best new cultivars have come through chance pollination of plants that would not meet naturally in the wild.

Plant Family

Plants that share many similar characteristics are grouped into families. Scientific names of plant families have the Latin suffix "aceae." For example: Echinacea purpurea is in the Asteraceae family of plants (pronounced "ass-ter-AY-see-eye"), which by it's common name is called the "the Aster Family." The scientific family name of a plant is rarely used among average gardeners in conversation or print media.

Need to find the scientific name of a plant?

If you ever need to know the scientific name of a plant just use the Gardenality Plant Search where you will most often find the family, genus, species and cultivar names of a plant.


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