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Scientific Naming of Houseplants

What is a scientific name and why would you care what it is? A scientific name is the formal name that a living thing goes by and is unique to that specific organism. It is very helpful to know the scientific name of a plant because many plants share their “common name” with other species of plants. Depending on who you’re talking to, Money Plant could be Scindapsus aureus, Lunaria annua, Pachira aquatica or Crassula ovata. None of these plants have any significant physical characteristics in common; they simply have lore attached to them concerning their ability to bring wealth.

Knowing the scientific name of a plant gives you the ability to learn important things about it, such as its cultural requirements, how to propagate it or how to treat it for an insect infestation. If you had a Money Plant and wanted to know how to care for it, you would find at least four different sets of instructions. If you didn’t know that there was more than one kind of Money Plant, things could get confusing rather quickly.

Fortunately for plant-lovers everywhere, a smart man named Carl Linnaeus made the system of “binomial nomenclature” popular. Back in the 16th century, Linnaeus realized the need to describe the natural world in a way that could be universally understood.

Binomial nomenclature means “two-name name”. Simple enough, right? In scientific naming, the two names used are the genus and specific epithet. Together they identify a species. Genus is always capitalized and the specific epithet is always lower-case. Once a species has been mentioned in a written piece, the genus name can thereafter be abbreviated. In written form a species name is always underlined, but you will see in print and online that it is always in italics. This is done merely to denote a scientific name.

For those who learn things in a more visual manner, a scientific name is typed as follows: Genus specific epithet. To use a previously mentioned plant as an example: Crassula ovata, where Crassula is the genus, ovata is the specific epithet, and Crassula ovata is the species. Since Crassula ovata has been mentioned by its full name it is now permissible to refer to it as C. ovata.

Scientific naming uses Latin which is very helpful in avoiding mix-ups in translation. If you were shopping for a Crassula ovata you would get the same plant anywhere in the world. If you were shopping for a Money Plant you might get something very different than you were expecting. The nice thing about the Latin naming is that it is often descriptive of the plant, making it easy to remember. The “ovata” in Crassula ovata describes the ovate or oval shape of the leaves. The specific epithet can describe the color of the plant, a unique feature, or even tell you who first discovered it.

Sometimes the scientific name of a plant will be longer than just the species. If after the specific epithet you see the abbreviation “var.” followed by another italicized name, the plant is a particular variety of that species. Varieties are naturally occurring mutations. If the specific epithet is followed by the abbreviation “cv.” and a third (non-italicized) name, or just a third (non-italicized) name in single quotes, the plant is a particular cultivar of that species. Cultivars are man-made mutations. Mutations can be different sizes, colors or variegations.

Hopefully you are inspired to learn the scientific names of the plants all around you. By doing so, you will discover relationships between plants that goes beyond just names. Plants of the same genus often have very similar care requirements; this makes learning about new plants much easier, and making learning easier makes it a lot more fun.


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