BOTANICAL LATIN PLANT NAMES

WHY WE SHOULD CARE AND THE STORIES THEY TELL: PART ONE

Why should gardeners make an effort to learn botanical Latin names? When we know the name of a plant, we have the ability to expand our knowledge about that plant. With the common name, some knowledge is gained. However, knowing the plant’s botanical name (genus and species) gives us much more. Genus and species provide a path to understanding a plant’s physical attributes, medicinal use, geographical origin, ethnobotany, cultivation, or history.

Another reason to know the botanical name is that there will be no confusion as to which plant we are referring. An example of this is the common name ‘bluebell,’ used for numerous plants. This moniker is given to Mertensia virginica (US), Campanula rotundifolia (Scotland), Hyacinthoides nonscripta (England), Phacelia campanularia (California), and Wahlenbergia gloriosa (Australia). If we are describing a ’bluebell’ in our California garden and use its specific name, Phacelia campanularia, our listener will know exactly which flower we are speaking of. ‘Bluebell’ is a pretty name but not specific!

Because Latin is not the active language of any country, it has remained stable for centuries and is therefore ideal for scientific labeling. So we can be sure that any plant with the word ‘campanula’ in its botanical name has bell-shaped flowers. This is the universal meaning of whether a plant was named 400 years ago or 10 years ago. We can also be sure that a plant’s botanical name (genus and species) would refer to the same plant no matter where in the world it is growing.

Latin has become the universally understood language of describing plants. This is why we should care about botanical Latin plant names!

by Barbara Mhyre

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