Understanding Latin names of plants

Understanding Latin Plant Names

In an effort to learn the official names of plants, I'm going to be making sure I use the scientific or Latin plant name whenever I refer to a plant or share a picture of a plant. There's more to Latin plant names than just giving them a name that's hard to remember and difficult to pronounce.  Once you understand the rules by which plants are given a name hopefully it becomes easier to recall them (that's my plan!) There are plenty of useful wikipedia pages you can refer too - here is a list of common names with their Latin name.

As there are so many plants and so many species of plants a system for identifying plants had to be created.  With medicines being made from plants it was important that you got the right one. However, it is perhaps also simply that our instinctive human desire to understand and make sense of the natural world led scholars to group and order the plant world.

The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature ensures that no matter where you are in the world a plant can be correctly identified.

Binomial Names

In 1753 Carolus Linnaeus officially established the binomial system of nomenclature. Plants are given a name using the rule 'Genus species' with the species also known as the 'specific epithet' is always written in lowercase.  Plant names must be written in italics if in type or underlined if handwritten. It's a little like we name people, they have surname (or family name) and a Christian name.


Genus names are chosen based on a variety of reasons, here are a few examples.


Eucomis bicolor (shown above) commonly known as the Pineapple Lily or Pineapple Plant Eucomis means pleasing hair of the head
Chionanthus, where 'chion' means snow in Greek.


Lobelia named after M. de Lobel who was the first man to identify the difference between monocots and dicots.
Bougainvillea is named after Louis Antoine de Bougainville


Hebe - the greek goddess of youth
According to Greek mythology, the Anemone sprang from Aphrodite's tears as she mourned the death of Adonis.

Astrantia Major 
(common name Great Masterwort)-Astrantia probably comes from Aster meaning star (very fitting for these flowers) and major means 'larger' as it is a bigger variety. 

Specific Epithet

This is the part of the name that identifies the specific plant species. Sometimes this name is informative (not always). It can be derived from the location the plant grows, eg occidentalis means from the west. Or the look of the plant, eg. hirsutus if the plant is hairy. It could also describe the habitat it comes from such as montanus (mountains)or slyvaricus (woodland).

Varieties / Subspecies

Subspecies and varieties are separated from the specific epithet by the rank designation "var.", "ssp." or "subsp.", or "forma". The term “var.” is only used for scientifically described varieties, not for cultivars.

eg Apium graveolens var. rapaceum (common name celeriac)

Hybrids & Cultivars

Naming Cultivars Properly 

Cultivars are clones, they don't grow in the wild and have been cultivated by humans. Cultivars are given additional names which are written in normal text and with single quotation marks. The epithet must also be in a modern language not latin, it can be named after a person or be descriptive. Here are some examples.

Geranium endressii ‘A. T. Johnson’
Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety'

Here is a list of rules for naming a cultivar taken from the website Total Landscape Care
  • Make sure your proposed name is unique and that the epithet is in a modern language other than Latin. 
  • Make sure that your name cannot be confused either in spelling or pronunciation with an existing one. 
  • Make sure that your name could not be interpreted as being likely to exaggerate the merits of the cultivar. 
  • Make sure that the epithet of your name has no more than 10 syllables and no more than 30 characters, excluding spaces and the single quotation marks. 
  • Make sure your epithet does not consist of a single letter or solely of numerals. 
  • Do not use any of the following banned words (or their equivalents in any language) in your epithet: cultivar, grex, group, hybrid, maintenance, mixture, selection, series, sport, strain, variety (or the plural form of these words in any language) or the words “improved” or “transformed.” 
  • Do not use any punctuation marks except for the apostrophe, the comma, a single exclamation mark, the hyphen and the period. Do not use fractions or symbols unless they are specifically permitted. 
  • Make sure that your epithet is not, or does not contain, the Latin or common name of its genus or the common name of any species in that genus if use of such might lead to confusion. 
  • Make sure that publication of the cultivar’s name is not against the wishes of its grower or breeder.

Naming Hybrid Plants Properly

Hybrids are the offspring of two plants. I find the way you name these quite complicated. It all comes down to whether they're from the same genus or not.

Hybrids between species of a different genera are written with the new hybrid specific generic name preceded by and x, followed by the two genera crossed in brackets -

 x Newgenus (genus x genus)

or if they're from the same genus you write the genus with an x between it and the specific epithet, followed by the first initial of the genus and the specific epithet of both parents with a cross inbetween.

Genus x specific epithet ( G. specific epithet x G. specific epithet)

or another example is -

Forsythia x intermedia 'Lynwood', which is as a result of crossing Forsythia suspensa with Forsythia viridissima 

Further reading

This book is on my wishlist, it goes through over 3000 plant names and shows you their etymology, ideal for anyone looking to learn more about gardening and the plants in their garden.

www.thespruce.com - The Spruce - scientific names listed alphabetically
www.habitas.org.uk - in-depth look at the naming of plants

An interesting video looking at the way in which we came to classify plants