University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

News Article

Understanding Plant Names

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Plant explorers, geography, flowers, and leaves. What do all these have in common? These are some of the main keys to understanding plant names.

Although horticulturists often malign botanists for their seemingly obscure, and ever changing, naming of plants, there is some method to their system. If you have some insight into how plants are named, you will find the scientific names less confusing and "foreign." This will make it easier to find just the plant you want to purchase for your landscape garden.

The scientific names are indeed foreign, however, in the sense that they are in Latin. This language was chosen years ago for a couple main reasons. First, it can be used by every country, and while common to many, it is not specific to any. Second, it is a "dead" language, meaning it is no longer evolving and changing.

Let's dissect a basic scientific name. The first name is the genus, the second the species. In Achillea millefolium, Achillea is the genus and millefolium the species. This species, by the way, means "a thousand leaves," referring to the finely dissected leaves. The further subdivision of "cultivar" is the rule, not the exception, with perennial and annual flowers.

Flowers probably are the plant part most often used for plant names. By knowing the terms for flower parts, you'll know many plant names. Take color for instance. The common species "lactiflora" or "alba" means white, "lutea" means yellow, "rubrum" means red. You will find these used in species of lilies or peonies.

The Purple Coneflower is Echinacea purpurea, the species name once again denoting the flower color as seen in the common name. Time of bloom is often seen in species such as autumnalis (as in the Helenium or Helen's Flower).

Flower shape also is often seen in plant species. Large groups of many smaller flowers form a panicle, as in Phlox paniculata. If the group of smaller flowers form a roughly flat-topped cluster as in the carrot family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae), you will see the species name umbellatus as in an aster (actually the Daisy family).

Then there are the leaves. An example of a plant name based on the color of leaves is rubifolia, as in the currently popular purplish leafed Snakeroot (Cimicifuga). If based on shape of the leaves, you may see such species as latifolia (meaning wide) or persicifolia (meaning peach-leafed, Persica being the name for peach) in the bellflowers (Campanula). The lance-shaped leaves of certain hostas give rise to the species lancifolia.

If based on other traits of the leaf such as hairs, look for tomentosa as in the tomentose or Wooly Yarrow. Leaf margins give rise to such species as dentata in the genus Ligularia.

The growth habit of a plant also appears in many species' names. The species alpina means just what it sounds like--alpine or dwarf or from alpine regions. If you see a plant with this species name, a good bet is it's dwarf. The species horizontalis means growing horizontal, as in many junipers. If the plant is even lower creeping, repens is often used as in the Creeping Baby's Breath seen in many rock gardens.

Where does a plant come from?

For a hint, check out species' names such as virginianum (Virginia), sibirica (Siberia, of course), or japonica (Japan). Less obvious may be cultivar names such as 'Elijah Blue' Festuca (from Elijah Lane on Long Island), 'Husker's Red' Penstemon after the Cornhusker state of Nebraska where it was selected, or 'Bressingham Comet' Kniphofia or Torch Lily named after the famous nursery in England, the source of many of our perennials.

'Hillside Black Beauty' Snakeroot is the darkest leafed form of this plant yet. It's from Hillside Gardens, a specialty perennial nursery in northwestern Connecticut.

Then there are people, often plant explorers or nursery professionals, who lend their names to plant varieties. The coralbells 'Dale's Strain' is named after the Pennsylvania nurseryman Dale Hendricks. The new dwarf coneflower (Echinacea) 'Kim's Knee High' is named for the North Carolina nurserywoman, Kim Hawkes, who selected it. "Pierre's Pure Pink" Lungwort was selected by Pierre Bennerup, a wholesale nurseryman in Connecticut.

Many plants such as asters, daylilies, astilbes, and roses are named after horticulturists, their friends, or their relatives. 'Champlain' and 'David Thompson' are two of the "explorer series" of roses so named for famous Canadian explorers, and originally bred in Ottawa.

When ordering seeds and plants for your landscape gardens, why not play the name game to select new varieties. Then impress your friends and neighbors with your astute insight into how plants get their names.

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