For gardeners, botanical Latin is a language worth learning

If you’ve gone through a gardening catalog or shopped at a nursery, you’ve probably noticed two names given to each plant, a common name and a botanical name, the last of which could read as a sort of pretentious, unpronounceable gibberish. .

This is botanical Latin, and its purpose is to help confirm that the plant you bring home is what you want to buy.

The common name — often a cutesy marketing moniker — can get you into trouble. That’s why common names are just nicknames for plants. A single common name can be shared by many plants. And a plant can have many common names.

Confusion often follows.

The perennial cranesbill, for example, is the true Geranium, while the annual container plant that goes by the common name geranium is actually a Pelargonium. And depending on where you live, you may know my favorite perennial as fiery star or gayfeather. But call Liatris spicata, and everyone in every region and country knows what plant we are talking about.

This name game was addressed for the first time in 1700 by the Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carolus Linnaeus. His works “Systema Naturae” and “Fundamenta Botanica” created rules for classifying and naming plants in botanical Latin – a language he made, and with which all gardeners should have at least some familiarity.

Linnaeus devoted his life to assigning each plant and animal of his time a binomial name, or binomial, consisting of a genus and species, often based on the appearance of their reproductive parts. As you can imagine, some of these names raised eyebrows in the 18th century.

Consider avocado to be the Aztec word for testicle. Vainilla, the orchid pod from which vanilla comes, is derived from the Latin word “vaina,” meaning vagina (have you ever actually seen an orchid flower?).

Linnaeus’ International Code of Botanical Nomenclature states that the name of the plant begins with a capitalized genus, followed by a lowercase species, then a variety (if found in the wild), cultivar (if created by a breeder) or a hybrid name (if it is. a cross between two plants, indicted by an “x”).

The code is regulated by the International Botanical Congress, which has been convened every six years since 1900 to evaluate and decide on naming problems raised by new genetic research and scientific results. After all, Linnaeus did not have a microscope or a DNA testing laboratory, which would have helped to definitively determine which plants were related.

The Congress, which meets later in Madrid in July 2024, uses these modern tools to decide which plants to reclassify or rename.

Bleeding hearts, once officially called Dicentra spectabilis, were transferred to the newly created genus Lamprocapnos several years ago, and lion’s share, originally in the genus Antirrhinum, were transferred to the plantain family, Plantaginaceae, along with Digitalis, Hebe and Penstemon.

But no one regulates common names, and that can turn the identification of plants into a Tower of Babel, where Rudbeckia hirta is known to some as black-eyed Susan, to others as yellow daisy and to others still like a glorious daisy.

And the potential for error does not end there, as when the same common name is shared by several plants. Ask a garden center employee for a snowball shrub, and you might walk away with Hydrangea arborescens or Viburnum plicatum. It’s a crapshoot.

So it pays to study – or at least do some research before buying plants or trading seeds.

Enter a common name in the Royal Horticultural Society free online Garden plant finder ( ) and get a list of relevant botanical names – or vice versa. The suppliers listed are British, but the proper terminology adheres to no borders.

And if you really want to nerd out, get lost in the International Index of Plant Names (, a collaboration between the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; The Harvard University Herbarium, and the Australian National Herbarium.


Jessica Damiano writes regular gardening columns for The Associated Press. She publishes the award-winning Weekly Dirt Newsletter. Sign up here for weekly gardening tips and advice.


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