Botanical Latin, the Language of
 Gardeners is Still Spoken

Connie Holland
Adams County Master Gardener

Familiar and well-loved common names tend to get used for more than one plant. We should use common sense in talking about plants and remember that the botanical name is our guide to getting the right plant for the right spot in our gardens. However, to refer to potatoes by the botanical name Solanum tuberosum is not sensible. The same is true when talking about daffodils, pansies and other common garden plants. Botanical Latin, considered by some as a "dead language" since it is not spoken, is alive and well among gardeners. Botanical Latin plant names are intended to be specific, universal, and avoid the problems arising from using common names.

Common plant names can be troublesome. A classic example is the bluebell. That common name can refer to Mertensia (a perennial wild flower for shade) or Hyacinthoides (a bulb for shade) or Campanula (a perennial for part sun). The potential for confusion is enormous. Which one are you really buying if you use only the common name bluebell? A little research and knowledge about what one is growing and buying can be invaluable. "Speaking Botanical Latin" as a gardener is useful if you want to be certain that a plant you grow is really what you wanted and will grow in the conditions in which you intend to plant it. My motto is "buy a pot and put it in the right spot".

An embarrassing story of mine clearly illustrates my point about the need to know something about what you are buying. I have long admired an interesting plant known commonly as "Sea Holly". I never came across it in my garden center browsing until a year ago, when I found three beautiful plants in bloom in one-gallon containers. They were fairly expensive, but I really wanted them. I bought them since I just knew they would reseed to produce more. They were well labeled with their botanical name. However, I failed to do my research on the botanical name because, had I done so, I would have found out that this particular species was sterile and would never produce any seed!

Botanical Latin nomenclature for plant species came into widespread use in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, who designed a standardized system for classifying and naming plants (and animals) that is in use today. All plant and animal life are classified by Division, Subdivision, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. Linnaeusís system of plant names gave us the first universally understood system for naming plants. Back then Latin was the spoken language of the educated and used to communicate internationally. His botanical Latin became the universal language of plants.

Plant classification is a two name system with plants usually referred to by their Latin based genus and species names. Genus refers to a grouping of plants having common characteristics distinct from other groupings. An example is genus Rudbeckia, common name Black-eyed Susan. Genus names are always capitalized and written in Italics or underlined.

Species occur within a genus and are plants that have a high level of genetic similarity, can interbreed, and produce fertile offspring that look like the parent plant. Species names also are written in Italics or underlined but are NOT capitalized. A species is always linked with a genus. To illustrate, the genus Rudbeckia and species example fulgida are combined to become Rudbeckia fulgida, a perennial Black-eyed Susan, and leaves no doubt as to which Black-eyed Susan plant one is growing. Another Rudbeckia species is Rudbeckia hirta. It is a completely different looking Black-eyed Susan, does not have "a black eye" and is considered an annual. Can you see where this is going?

A variety occurs within a species and is a plant that exhibits some highly desired variation such as different color, leaf shape or height. Such natural varieties occur in nature. Most varieties are true to type meaning that seedlings grown from a variety will also have the same unique characteristics of the parent plant. A variety is always written in lower case, is italicized or underlined and is free of any quote marks. It often has the abbreviation var. as in the example Tulipa humilis var. pulchella, a miniature tulip with snow-white petals and a blue center.

A cultivar is a variation of a species, one that has been produced by manís deliberate selection. Cultivars are developed because of unusual flower or leaf color, growth habit, or disease resistance. The word cultivar is derived from a combination of cultivated and variety. A cultivar is a "cultivated variety" created by horticultural techniques such as cross breeding, grafting, tissue culture, leaf cuttings, or root divisions etc. Plants of a cultivar formed in this manner are considered genetically identical clones of the original plant. Seeds from a cultivar may not come true to the parent. Echinacea ĎHarvest Mooní is a coneflower cultivar with a pale orange-yellow colored flower. Allowed to go to seed in my garden, it produced purple offspring.

Variety and cultivar sometimes are used interchangeably; however they are different. Varieties and cultivars have different naming conventions. Cultivar names are always written inside `single quotes' and, unlike genus, species and variety, are never underlined or written in Italics. In other words, cultivars differ from "typical" examples of a plant species to which they belong and that difference is important enough to justify the time and energy needed to preserve or cultivate the differences.

Hybrids can occur naturally or they can be produced by human intervention by controlled cross breeding of distinctly different species in order to obtain seed of the same hybrid. The aim of deliberate hybridization is to capture the best characteristics of both parents. If hybridization is successful, the resulting plant is usually given a cultivar name and released commercially. So a successful hybrid is also a cultivar. Keep in mind some hybrids are sterile and do not produce seed. If seed does come from a hybrid plant, it can be disappointment when the resulting offspring are not true to the parent. A lot of hybrid corn available today give higher yields, taste better and withstand disease.

Remember the real value of botanical Latin is in knowing a plantís genus, species, and variety or cultivar name because these are the key to unlocking information you need to know to garden successfully. Donít forget my motto, "buy a pot and plant it in the right spot".

Latin for Gardeners: a Brief Pronunciation Guide

A Primer on Plant Nomenclature

Whoís In My Garden

Read other articles by Connie Holland