Latin Linguistics - A Useful Tool in Horticulture

One of the most frustrating aspects for new gardeners is the use of Latin in Scientific or Botanical plant names. Believe it or not, botanical names were created by Carl von Linne to make plant names easier. Before Linnaeus (Latinized version of Linne) created the binomial (bi = two and nom = name) system, each plant had several names.

The first part of the binomial system is the Genus (always capitalized). The second part is the specific epithet (always lowercase). Together, the genus and specific epithet make up a species or name of a plant. This system is similar to an individual's name. Our last name identifies us to a particular group (family) like Romer, Flynn, or Haynes. The Genera (plural for Genus) of Acer, Quercus, and Salvia do the same for plants. Our first name identifies us specifically as James, Paula, or Cindy as do the specific epithets rubrum, alba, or splendens for plants. Put these two words together and you have the name of a specific individual (James Romer, Paula Flynn, or Cindy Haynes) or plant species (Acer rubrum, Quercus alba, or Salvia splendens). The order of placement is the only difference between the two naming systems. The species names for plants are usually italicized or underlined. However, plants take it one step farther with the addition of the cultivar, or cultivated variety. Garden salvia or Salvia splendens is available in many colors. 'Salsa Scarlet' is a red-flowered cultivar while 'Salsa White' is a white-flowered cultivar. Cultivar names are usually in quotation marks and follow the specific epithet (Salvia splendens 'Salsa White').

Why do we prefer scientific/botanical names?

Why should we bother learning the botanical names of plants when the common names seem to work fine? The best reason for not using common names when referring to plants is that they are often more confusing than the botanical name. For example, several cultivars of Acer rubrum and Acer platanoides are commonly called red maple. There is a great difference between these two species and the only way you can be assured you are referring to the same red maple is to use the botanical name.

So when you go to the local garden center and ask for red maple you could get any one of over several hundred different types of trees. But, if you ask for Acer rubrum 'Red Sunset' you will you are selecting a truly superior maple with brilliant red fall color. You can also be assured that Acer rubrum 'Red Sunset' is the same plant in Iowa, Louisiana, Great Britain, or anywhere else in the world. Whereas, who knows what red maple means in Louisiana!

Latin was used as the language for scientific names because it is considered a "dead" language. This means no new words or slang are created or changed through the years. Once you know a little Latin, plant names can tell you a great deal about the plants themselves. The genus name is usually a noun. Acer is a maple, Mentha is a mint, etc. The species name is commonly an adjective describing that member of the genus. The species name can tell you the color of the flower (rubra means red), where it originates (japonica means Japan), its form or habit (pendula means weeping), etc. Sometimes the combination of two Latin words make up a specific epithet like grandi (meaning large) and flora (meaning flower). Therefore, Magnolia grandiflora is a large flowering Magnolia.

See how simple and useful learning Latin can be! Below is the meaning of some common Latin words that can help you know more about your plants.

alba White
ater Black
aurea Chartreuse
azur Blue
caeruleus Blue
chrysus Yellow
coccineus Scarlet
ebenus Ebony
eburneus Ivory
erythro Red
ferrugineus Rusty
flava Yellow
gala Milky
haema Blood red
lacteus Milky
leuc White
lividus Blue-gray
luridus Pale yellow
luteus Yellow
nigra Black/dark
puniceus Red-purple
purpureus Purple
rosea Rose
rubra Red
sulphureus Yellow
virens Green
Origins or Habitat
alpinus Alpine
amur Amur River - Asia
canadensis Canada
chinensis China
japonica Japan
maritima Sea side
montana Mountains
occidentalis West - North America
orientalis East - Asia
sibirica Siberia
sylvestris Woodland
virginiana Virginia
Form or Habit
contorta Twisted
globosa Rounded
gracilis Graceful
maculata Spotted
magnus Large
nana Dwarf
pendula Weeping
prostrata Creeping
reptans Creeping
Common Root Words
anthos Flower
brevi Short
fili Threadlike
flora Flower
folius Foliage
grandi Large
hetero Diverse
laevis Smooth
lepto Slender
macro Large
medio Intermediate
mega Big
micro Small
mono Single
multi Many
phyllos Leaf/Foliage
platy Flat/Broad
poly Many

This article originally appeared in the July 23, 1999 issue, pp. 100-101.


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, Horticulture and Home Pest News, 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 July 23, 1999. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.