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How to make sense of Latin plant names
At foli8, we strive to be authoritative, but we also need you to be able to find the plants that you want. We try not to confuse you with the naming of our plants but to let you know early on that a plant may be called different names – by its scientific name, variety or common name(s).
With that in mind, we have decided that we will use what we think is the most recognized common name for a plant as its headline name, but we will always show its scientific name and, where appropriate, other common names too. This means that when you search for a particular plant, you should always be able to find what you are looking for.
A quick and easy guide to plant classification
The plant kingdom is divided and subdivided into a multi-branched “family tree”, according to each plant’s botanical characteristics. Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who published his “Species Plantarum” in 1753, established the modern binomial system of plant classification. It ensures that all plants that are “related” to one another are grouped on the same “branch” and that, ultimately, every plant is identified by a unique name that will be recognised anywhere in the world, irrespective of differences in language or common name.
Most plants alive today are seed-bearing, flowering plants. There are more than 250,000 species of flowering plants, although only 300 or so are used as houseplants.
Flowering plants are divided into Monocotyledonous species (monocots), which produce a single leaf from the germinating seed, and Dicotyledonous species (dicots), which produce a double leaf. Monocots and dicots also have very different arrangements of vascular tissue in their stems and leaves, and the leaves of dicots tend to be broader and have a network of veins, rather than parallel veins found in monocots. In nature, dicots outnumber monocots by approximately 10 to 1, although indoor plants are mainly monocots.
Some more primitive plant groups, such as ferns, cycads and conifers are also used indoors.
This table shows a very simplified classification of the plant kingdom:
Naming of plants
The scientific names of plants use the Linnean, or Binomial, system. Scientific naming is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants. Cultivated plants are named according to the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants.
True species have a unique name, and are identified by their Genus and species. Let’s take the example of the popular house plant, Ficus elastica, the rubber plant. The name is always in italics (or underlined when hand-written).
The Genus name always starts with a capital letter. The species name always starts with a lowercase letter.
Ficus is the genus (plural, genera) to which the plant belongs and is the equivalent of a surname. Other plants in the same genus e.g. Ficus benjamina, Ficus pumila, have a large number of common botanical characteristics, even though they may not look very similar.
images above: Three species of Ficus. L-R Ficus elastica, Ficus benjamina, Ficus pumila
Related genera are placed in families, which in our example is the mulberry-fig family of Moraceae. It contains mostly trees, shrubs and vines, often with milky sap. Moving further up the “tree”, related families make up orders which are then grouped together into classes. At the very top are the divisions, sometimes called phyla (singular, phylum), which further divide the plant kingdom.
In a variety or cultivar of a species, e.g. Ficus elastica ‘Abidjan’, the variety or cultivar name is always written in ‘quote’ marks.
A cultivated hybrid between two species, e.g. Aglaonema ‘Silver Queen’ does not have a species name.
Where do plant names come from?
The above classification may explain the naming system but where did all the names come from?
The origin of popular or common plant names is usually self-evident; for example the large holes in the leaves of Monstera deliciosa lead fairly obviously to “Swiss Cheese Plant”. However the origin of many botanical names may seem a little more obscure.
In general the genus and species names are derived from the Greek or Latin words for some botanical feature of the plant, its appearance, where it was originally found or who discovered it. For example:
Hedera canariensis. Canary Island ivy. “Hedera” is the old Latin name for ivy and this particular species is native to the Canary Islands.
Howea forsteriana. Kentia palm (shown below). The German naturalist Forster first discovered the species on Lord Howe Island in the Pacific.
Asplenium nidus. Bird’s nest fern (shown below). Some species of Asplenium were once popular as a remedy for spleen disorders, and “nidus” is the Latin word for nest, which the downy hollow in the centre of the plant undoubtedly resembles.
Monstera deliciosa. Swiss Cheese Plant (shown below). Nothing very scientific here; the leaves grow to a “monstrous” size and the banana-shaped fruit it produces in the wild is “delicious” to eat!
Of course no system is perfect and botanists don’t always agree about the name of a particular species, or they reclassify them (something that is happening more frequently due to advances in genomic analysis of plant DNA, rather than relying on the physical appearance of plants).
A good place to see the latest advances in plant classification and naming is the Kew Plants of the World online database, which cross references over a million plant names.
Despite the best intentions of the binomial system you will therefore find occasional name differences, especially between different countries, and you will also find that horticulturalists and plant breeders give their cultivated plants a scientific sounding name.
Common names, on the other hand, are based on the normal language of everyday life. Common names are convenient because they are easier to write and pronounce, but a downside to common names is there are often many common names for each plant, even in the same language – let alone all the common names found in other languages. Many plants may have 3 or more common names in English, yet they will only have one scientific name recognised around the world.
What plant names will you find on the foli8 website?
This has been the subject of much internal debate. We strive to be authoritative, but we also need you to be able to find the plants that you want. With that in mind, we have decided that we will use what we think is the most recognized common name for a plant as its headline name, but we will always show its scientific name and, where appropriate, other common names too. This means that when you search for a particular plant, you should be able to find what you are looking for.
By Kenneth Freeman
header image credit: Carl von Linnaeus - Swedish National Museum