Latin plant names for beginners
Latin plant names can sometimes appear daunting to amateur plant parents. Unless you are a botanist, most people struggle to read them, pronounce them, or even remember them. Wouldn’t it be easier to just call the plants by their common names? As it turns out, it isn’t! There is a very sound reasoning behind the scientific names of plants. Let us tell you all about it here.
The Natural History Museum. (n.d.). Linnaeus's plant classification, Systema Naturae
There have been many attempts throughout history to classify the living world. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1700s that someone achieved an effective, rank-based classification system that could be used unanimously by scientists around the entire world. This achievement was accomplished by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. In 1753, this Swedish genius published Systema Naturae (The system of nature). This book organised plants and animals using a hierarchical taxonomy system, classifying them from Kingdoms all the way down to Species.
The living world is classified in 5 Kingdoms of life: Plant Kingdom (Regnum Plantae – hey that’s the name of our store!), Animal Kingdom (Regnum Animalia), Fungi Kingdom (Regnum Fungi), Protist Kingdom (Regnum Protista), and Monera Kingdom (Regnum Monera).
Each of the living things classified within these kingdoms share enough common ancestors, genes, or characteristics that it makes sense for them to belong together in the same group (kingdom).
Kingdom is only one of the ‘ranks’ in Linnaeus’ taxonomical hierarchy. There are other taxonomic sub-categories which narrow down the classification of a living thing even further. Let’s use the classification of plants as an example:
So, if we take the lovely and popular Dog Rose as an example, we can then say that it belongs to the Plant Kingdom (Regnum Plantae), its division is Flowering plant (Angiospermae), its class is Eudicot (Eudicotidae), its order is Rosales, its family is the Rose family (Rosaceae), its genus is Rosa and its species is Dog Rose (Rosa canina). Linnaeus explains this taxonomical hierarchy of plants in his 1753 follow up publication Species Plantarum (The species of plants).
Our Swedish mastermind was also the first to consistently adopt something called the binomial system of nomenclature (binomial meaning ‘two terms’ and nomenclature meaning ‘names of things’).
Masclef, A. (1891). Rosa canina L
Before the binomial system of nomenclature, Botanical Latin names of plants could be extremely lengthy and tedious. The names would include a bunch of characteristics to distinguish the plant from other plants which shared 90% of the same classification. But here comes our hero Carl to save the day. He decided to shorten all this to just the last two ranks of the classification: genus and species.
The Genus classification describes a “group of plants within a plant family which have even closer similarities or shared characteristics and lineage” (Patel Ellis, 2018: 130).
Species is the smallest and most basic ranking category and distinguishes organisms that breed with each other (Patel Ellis, 2018).
This is why when nowadays we buy a house plant, its tag says something like Monstera deliciosa, or Calathea ornata. Monstera or Calathea is the name of the genus and deliciosa or ornata is the name of the species.
But wait a moment. I’ve seen plant tags that say Ceropegia woodii ‘Silver Glory’. Now what are the commas about? Well, let us explain. The name within the commas is a cultivated variety, meaning it has been artificially raised and grown in cultivation, and its characteristics are preserved by controlled propagation. There are other third names or prefixes often given to plants which you probably have also come across. So as not to keep this article too long, we will deal with them in a subsequent post.
Now you may be wondering why all these Latin names are necessary, or why can’t we just call them ‘Swiss cheese plant’ and get on with it.
And the answer to this takes us back to our old friend Carl. There are over 400,000 species of plants all over the world and back in the 1700s it was extremely difficult to research, keep records of plants or even refer to them by their common names, as every part of the world gave a plant their own name. One country would name a plant ‘mother in law’s tongue’ while another country gave it the name of ‘snake plant’. This is still an issue today, making Linnaeus´ binomial system of nomenclature extremely valuable and relevant still.
The Main Man Carl
The fact that plant names are in Latin makes them universal, as they can cross all language and cultural barriers. Latin plant names are like a superpower that unites all plant lovers in the world. Thanks Carl!
If this topic interests you, you may want to consider reading further into it. Off the bat we would recommend The collins botanical bible (2018), which we used as the basis of this article, or any publication from the RHS. They all usually include a section on Latin plant names.
After all this, how could we name our shop anything other than Plantae? 😉
Reference: Patel Ellis, S. 2018. The Collins botanical bible. London: William Collins.