Meaning Of Botanical Plant Names

Under the common name of many plant labels there is another, usually longer and quite unpronouncable one, written in italics. This is the botanical name, also called the scientific, proper or Latin name, and every plant known to man, however rare, has one.

Why bother with long, complicated plant names when you can easily remember their common ones? Almost everyone who has house plants asks this question. Here are the answers.

Why Latin?

Latin is accepted as the language for scientific names all over the world. For example, the Latin name for Spotted Laurel, Aucuba japonica, is known by all botanists and growers. Its common name differs from one country and language to another: even between Britain and America, where it’s called Gold Dust Plant.

Common names can refer to more than one plant: Wandering Jew refers to Tradescantia and Zebrina species. And common names can give a plant a false, or at least confusing, identity: Rock Rose, Sun Rose, Rose of Sharon and Christmas Rose aren’t roses at all!

The Linnaean systemMeaning Of Botanical Plant Names

From the beginning of civilization, men gave plants names. As more plants were found, more names were needed to identify them.

In about 1750, a Swedish botanist, Linnaeus, standardized the naming of nearly 6000 different plants. be used a two-name, or ‘binomial’ system, giving each plant a generic name, which showed the genus it belonged to, followed by a specific epithet or descriptive name. This system is used today.

In the Linnaean system, plants are organized according to botanical similarities into broad groups, called families. Families are divided, again according to shared similarities, into genera and these are divided into species.

The Araceae, or Arum family, for example, includes over 100 genera, containing over 1500 species. Being mostly tropical plants for shady places, they make ideal house plants. The family Araceae includes Caladium, Scindapsus, Anthurium, Spathiphyllum, Monstera, Die ffenbachia and Aglaonema — better known as Angel’s Wings, Devil’s Ivy, Flamingo Flower, Peace Lily, Swiss Cheese Plant, Dumb Cane and Chinese Evergreen!

Other names

As well as genus and species, there are further subdivisions: subspecies, varieties and cultivars. Most wild plants only have 2 names, but many house plants are cultivars, which gives them a third name. The cultivar name follows the species. It is usually non-Latin, starts with a capital letter, and appears in single quotes. Back to the Arum family, Aglaonema crispum ‘Silver Queen’ and Caladium hortulanum ‘Lord Derby’ are examples of cultivars.

All change

One of the most frustrating things for growers and botanists is that proper names are sometimes changed by taxonomists, people whose job is to classify plants. Names change because the plant was put in the wrong genus to start with, or the plant is given back its earlier name, which had ‘gone missing’ and is later found. Sometimes this has a ‘knock-on’ effect, and a closely related plant also needs a new name as a result.

Classification guide


A large group of plants sharing certain broadly similar structures: Gramineae, the grass family; Rosctceae, the rose family; and Liliaceae, the lily family.


A group of plants sharing closer similarities and divided into species: Rosa, Philodenclrum and Tulipa. (The plural of genus is ‘genera’.)


Closely related but distinctly different plants belonging to the same genus: Dracaena frog-Tans, D. margin and D. deremensis.

Subspecies and varieties

Minor, often geographical, variations in species in the wild. These are shown by a third Latin name: Rosa foetida bicolor and Pieris fcrrmosa forrestii.


Plant variants found in cultivation. Cultivars occur naturally or by selection of hybrid crosses: H. helix ‘Chicago’ and H. helix `Goldheare.


A cross between 2 species. This is sometimes shown by an X between the genus and species name: Clematis x jackmanii. With most house plants, it’s shown by a generic name followed by a non-Latin name in single quotes, starting with a capital letter: Epiphyllum ‘Little Sister’, or E. ‘Midnight’.

Where the name comes from

Though it seems like gobbledegook, there is a logic in naming, and in using Latin. Since the English language has Latin roots, you’re sure to recognize some of the names, even with their odd endings.

Commemorative names

Some plants are named after famous botanists, missionaries, explorers, monarchs or the plant’s discoverer. Fuchsia is named after Dr. Leonard Fuchs, a German botanist; Saintpaulia commemorates its discoverer, Baron Wolter von Saint Paul Illaine.

Ancient classical reference

Though most botanic names have Latin endings, many come from the Greek names which were given to plants thousands of years ago. Narcissus is named after a mythological young man who changed into a flower, after wasting away admiring his own reflection in a pool.

Native names

Jacaranda is the native Brazilian name for the plant; Aloe is the Arabic name for that plant.

Descriptive name

A name may describe what a plant looks like, its similarity to another plant or even animal, or where the plant likes to live. Epidendron comes from epi, Greek for upon, and dendron, Greek for tree, referring to its preferred habitat. Rhododendron comes from rhodos, Greek for red, and dendron, Greek for tree, referring to its flowers.

Popular generic names

  • Allium Latin for garlic
  • Amaryllis The name of a shepherdess in Greek mythology
  • Begonia After Dr. Begon, the French patron of botany
  • Calceolaria From calceolus, Latin for slipper, describing the shape of the flowers
  • Dianthus From dios, Greek for divine, and anthos, Greek for flower: flower of the gods
  • Pelargonium From pelargos, Greek for stork, and gonos, Greek for angle referring to the stork-like shape of the seed pod
  • Primula From primus, Latin for first, referring to its early flowering.

Popular specific names

  • alpinus Alpine in origin
  • argenteus Silvery
  • bellus Beautiful
  • cam panulatus Bell-shaped
  • elasticus Latex bearing
  • floribundus Many flowered
  • giganteus Huge, giant
  • horridus Bristled, rough, ugly
  • japonicus From Japan maculatus Spotted
  • purpureus Purple
  • rotundifolius Round-leaved
  • tuberosus Tuberous rooted
  • variegatus Variegated

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