Botanical Names

Botanical Names are the official names of plants.

Walking through the garden center in the spring, looking at all the possibilities for our gardens, we typically see flat upon flat of plants with their descriptive tags. These tags will contain a lot of information about the plant; name, sun exposure, height, spacing, etc. The name part of these tags is what we’d like to discuss. This is intended to be a short article about botany for gardeners and not a detailed discussion of the etymology of names, although delving into the origins of the Latin names can be an interesting exercise into the history of plant discovery. Our system of classifying plants and naming them has evolved from a system first developed by Swedish Naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Often called the father of Taxonomy, Linnaeus’ system for classifying and naming organisms is still used today.

Common Names
There are usually two names listed on name tags- one common, descriptive name sometimes contained in single quotes and another name written in Latin. The common or descriptive name is usually written in the local language. Problems can arise when the same plant has different, often regional variances in their common names. Botanical names on the other hand can be hard to remember and pronounce but are very specific.

A good example is marigolds. These ubiquitous flowers are in a lot of gardens. Two popular flowers referred to as marigolds are “French marigolds” (Tagetes patula) and “Pot marigold” (Calendula officinalis) or Calendula. While they are both members of the Daisy family (Asteraccae), they are two different, distinct plants that belong to two different branches of that family, and the exact plant can be identified by the botanical name listed on its tag.

Botanical Names
The botanical name of a plant usually consist of two parts. The genus name is listed first and is always capitalized. A genus is a group of closely related species and can contain lots of plants. The second part is the species name. The genus and species names combined are sometimes referred to as the binomial name, because it has two parts. This combined name is printed in italics. Sometimes a species will have several different varieties or cultivars with the variety name appearing after the first two names, capitalized and enclosed in single quotes.

For example, let’s use the above French Marigolds, Tagetes patula. The species name is Tagetes, properly written with the first letter capitalized. The genus name is patula. Taken together, Tagetes patula, is the species name. By the way, “French” marigolds are not originally from France at all. They originated in the Americas and were brought back to Europe in the 1600’s and these varieties were then cultivated in France.

Hybrid plants have their own sub-system of naming. When two species of one genus are crossed, the resulting seedlings have a new species name, but a lowercase “x” is placed in front of the species name. When two species of two different genera are crossed, the resultant seedlings have a new genus name and the “x” is placed in front of the new genus name.

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