Those crazy plant names...how to figure them out


by


Dr. J. Robert Nuss, Penn State Cooperative Extension

Why is it important to know the specific name or scientific names of plants?

Because common names are like nicknames people give each other. A nickname has meaning to a select number of people, but not to everyone.

Common names, though useful in daily conversations, can be confusing and often meaningless.

Each of the half a million kinds of plants in the world's plant kingdom has a unique characteristic, identity and name. The plant naming process began with the Greek philosopher Theophratus, who classified plants according to their growth habits, floral characteristics and life cycle. Latin words used to describe each plant became the plants's name. So plant names eight to nine words long became common.

Swedish botanist Carl von Linne revolutionized the plant naming system in the mid 1700s. His book, Species Plantarum, was the start of modern plant classification - the binomial system of nomenclature. In this system, each plant has a two-word (binomial) Latin name.

The first word is the genus, which designates a large group of plants with similar characteristics. The genus name is always capitalized and underlined or italicized. The plural of genus is genera.

The second word refers to the species, which separates a plant from others in the genus. The species is a population of related and interbreeding units distinctly different from other species in the genus. Species names are usually lower case and underlined or italicized.

With some species, individual plants or groups of plants may differ slightly with regard to leaf size, shape, or other visible qualities. If these differences are not botanically significant, these plants are considered a natural variety of the species. A variety name follows the genus and species name and is preceded by the word variety or 'var'. It is written in lower case letters and is underlined or italicized.

When man intervenes to modify a plant, the result is called a cultivar (CULT-vated variety). Cultivars are usually propagated by cuttings, divisions or grafting. Seed propagation of cultivars may not produce an individual similar to the parent. Cultivar names are usually not Latin and are capitalized. They are enclosed in single quotation marks or preceded by a "cv." and are never underlined or italicized. Variety and cultivar names are significant when you make plant selections. With an understanding of the total plant and its qualities, you can make selections that meet your specific interests.

(reprinted from The Sarasota Orchid Society newsletter, with permission of the Editor)

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