What’s in a (plant) name?


Have you ever wondered why plant people need to speak in Latin? Or do you even care?

Well, in fact, it’s very important to use Latin names for plants.

Following is a great example that I borrow from my colleague Jim Chatfield, who is quite good at teaching binomial nomenclature (more on that later).

Let’s say you walk into a garden center and ask the salesperson for a red maple. She takes you over to an ‘October Glory’ red maple. You say, that’s not what I am looking for.

She then takes you to a ‘Crimson King’ Norway maple and of course, that’s also not what you are looking for.

Finally she takes you to a Japanese maple and you are happy because that’s the tree you want.

While all three have something to do with being a red tree, they are all different species of trees.

The first one is a cultivar of a red maple, or Acer rubrum. The second is a cultivar of a Norway maple, or Acer platanoides. The third one is a species of a Japanese maple that has red leaves.

In the plant world, we try to use the Latin name (also known as the scientific name) when it comes to talking about specific plants.

Carolus Linnaeus created the binomial nomenclature system to be used worldwide so that we all would be speaking the same language when it came to identifying plants.

In binomial nomenclature, there are two words used to name a plant. The first is the genus, the second is called the specific epithet and together the two make up the species.

For instance, Acer is the genus for maples. A red maple is Acer rubrum, a silver maple is Acer saccharinum, and a sugar maple is Acer saccharum.

Latin names are always written the same with the genus capitalized and the specific epithet lower-case. They are listed in italics, though some sources will underline them.

Then we have to go and mix things up a little more by adding cultivar names. Notice in the examples above that I had single quotes around ‘October Glory’ or ‘Crimson King’? That’s the style used.

These are cultivars or cultivated varieties of the species. In other words, they were discovered to have characteristics that were similar to the species but maybe were special.

They are propagated and sold by the cultivar name. Cultivar stands for cultivated variety. For instance, Norway maples have green leaves but ‘Crimson King’ was a discovery that had red foliage during the summer.

When green industry professionals are talking about plants, especially if they are ordering specific plants, they will use the Latin names.

Most gardeners don’t worry about Latin names for plants and in the scheme of things, that’s OK. However, there may be a time when you really want to impress at a dinner party and you roll Liquidambar styraciflua off your tongue.

That’s a sweetgum, by the way — but doesn’t it sound lovely!



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

With a roundabout plan in place, what’s next for this busy Xenia intersection?
With a roundabout plan in place, what’s next for this busy Xenia intersection?

The city of Xenia is working with landowners to acquire the property necessary to install a roundabout at a busy intersection north of downtown, which it has studied to determine traffic flow. The city is working with the Ohio Department of Transportation to finalize plans to build the roundabout at the four-way stop of North Columbus (U.S. 42) and...
How to be among the first to ‘create art’ in Dayton’s newest arts space
How to be among the first to ‘create art’ in Dayton’s newest arts space

The PNC Arts Annex, Dayton’s new space for art and creativity, will hold a grand opening next weekend.  The multi-use performance and event space, 10 N. Ludlow Street in downtown Dayton, has a 200-seat theater with movable risers and flexible seating, gallery space and studios for classes and workshops.  “Everyone tells us there&rsquo...
You can see the full beaver moon shine bright Thanksgiving night, Black Friday
You can see the full beaver moon shine bright Thanksgiving night, Black Friday

Get outside after dinner to enjoy a full moon on Thanksgiving night.  RELATED: Unseasonably cold temperatures continue through the holiday The full beaver moon will shine bright Thursday night into Friday morning. The moon will rise around 5:19 p.m. Thursday and will become full at 12:39 a.m. Friday. If you wake up early to shop on...
U.S. 127 reopens, medical helicopter called after pedestrian strike in Preble Co.
U.S. 127 reopens, medical helicopter called after pedestrian strike in Preble Co.

UPDATE @ 6:15 a.m: U.S. 127 has reopened after a pedestrian was struck by a vehicle Wednesday morning.  U.S. 127 is blocked and a medical helicopter was called after a pedestrian was struck just north of the village of Camden Wednesday morning. Initial reports indicate a vehicle struck an individual around 4:40 a.m. and the person was in...
Black Friday 2018: 7 tips to help you get the best deals
Black Friday 2018: 7 tips to help you get the best deals

Ready your wallets, because Black Friday is right around the corner.  >> Read more trending news  With deals and discounts galore, shopping on one of the biggest sale days of the year can be overwhelming. But don’t fret. Here are a few tips to help you sift through the noise.  Decide how much you want to spend...
More Stories