Latin Names

Do you panic when faced with Latin plant names? Contrary to the belief of many, Carl von Linne, the creator of botanical nomenclature, was trying to make things easier for plant lovers. His Latin names for plants often include an adjective that describes some physical attribute of the plant. Von Linne classified plants according to physical similarities and assigned each a standard two-part name, or binomial. Thousands of plants were categorized based on the structure of their sexual parts. He believed in the system so much that he Latinized his own name to Carolus Linnaeus.

The two parts of binomial nomenclature are the generic epithet, which names the genus and is always capitalized, and the specific epithet, which names the species and is usually lowercase. The generic epithet often honor the person who first found the plant. Other genus names can only be appreciated by those who know mythology. Genus names can also be physically descriptive. The specific epithet usually provides a good clue to the plant's looks or character. As you read plant catalogs and garden books, you'll notice several that are used over and over.

Cultivar names can be spotted by the single quote marks that surround them. Cultivars are often named for people or places, but a few plant breeders follow a theme like songbirds or Shakespeare. Other breeders go for poetic names or fanciful things.

Some commonly used specific epithet plant names include:

albawhite flowersaureachartreuse to yellow leaves
caeruleablue flowerscanadensisfrom Canada or the northeastern United States
chrysanthayellow flowerscontortatwisted, contorted
edulisediblegrandifloralarge flowers
grandifolialarge leavesjaponicafrom Japan
luteayellow flowersmacrophyllabig leaves
maculataspottedmartimaof the sea
montanaof the mountainsnanadwarf
nigradarkoccidentalisfrom the west, generally the Americas
odoratascented flowersofficinalissold as an herb
orientalisfrom the east, usually Asiapaniculataflowers in panicles
racemosaflowers in racemesrepens,reptanscreeping, ground-hugging
rugosawrinkledsanguineabloody or red
spicataflowers on spikesstrictaupright
sylvestrisof the woodstomentosawooly, downy
Unlike modern English, Latin has gender. Genera are mostly feminine because most early Latin speakers thought of plants as feminine. However, there are masculine, neuter and even plural genera. A case in point is alpina (feminine). Alpinum is neuter gender, alpinus is the masculine gender. All have the same meaning, alpine.

Even though many of you probably haven't taken a Latin course, learning the meanings of words can be fun. With frequent use and repetition, the names do eventually sink in. If this article has piqued your interest in Latin plant names, try these books. Dictionary of Plant Names: The pronunciation, derivation, and meaning of botanical names and their common-name equivalents by Allen J. Coombes, Timber Press, Inc. Gardener's Latin by Bill Neal, Algonquin Books. How Plants Get Their Names by L.H. Bailey, Dover Publications.

This article originally appeared in the April 7, 1995 issue, p. 40.


Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Yard and Garden, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on April 7, 1995. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.