Adventures in Gardening: The Name Game

by David Soper

Lots of people strongly dislike the use of Latin names for plants. Partly because the pronunciation presents challenges and partly because it seems, to many, a bit pompous.

Well, every living thing on earth (at least those that have been discovered) has a Latin name. Actually, they (we) have two names minimum. The first name is the genus name. This is like your family's surname. Just like some cultures in the world use the family name first, so too do the binomials (the technical word for the two Latin names.)

Plants that are closely related share Genus names. For example, the potato and the eggplant are closely related. They are, both, in the Solanum genus. They, and many similar genus are lumped together in "Families." In this case, the family Solanaceae. Tomatoes are related to both potatoes and egg- plants, they have a different genus (Lycopersicon), same family.

The second name, SPECIes name, tells us something SPECIfic about a particular species. Homo sapiens means Man thinking versus our earlier relative Homo erectus (Man standing upright).

Some of the species names are descriptive such as dipetalus=two petals, caerulius=dark blue, foetidus=stinking, ferox=thorny.

Other species names are more fanciful like gracilus=graceful, hepatica=liver-shaped,imbicillus=weak or feeble.

Some have use three names to fully describe them. For example, Ursus arctos is the Brown Bear. U.a. horribis is the Grizzly. You get the picture.

When you are looking through catalogs or garden books, you'll see another name added. That is the cultivar (cultivated variety). These are plants enhanced? by humans. The name of the cultivar is set off by single quotes, as in 'Apricot Sherbet' or 'Geisha Girl.' Both are cultivars of Pot marigold, or more properly, Calendula officinalis.

This whole idea came from a Swedish scientist named Carl von Linne'. He published his naming ideas in 1735. He was so taken with the concept, he changed his own name to Carolus Linnaeus!

Plants and people travel aroung a lot these days and the old common names, usually regional or local, are often applied to several different genus or species.

The one way we know we are talking about the same thing is to use old Linnaeus' Latin binomials.

David Soper, The Garden Guy, writes and lectures on gardening topics. Check out his books at

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