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Plant Names Demystified

The same plant can be known by different common names in various areas of the country. On the other hand, a plant will only have one legitimate Latin name though there can also be synonyms by which it is known. Understanding the Latin names means you can easily read plant labels at nurseries.

Let’s look at the name of a plant as an example of how the names work. Native to the East and Midwest, the red maple is also called scarlet maple. Its Latin name is Acer rubrum. Acer is the genus name, which is used for maples whether it’s the exotic Japanese maple or the weedy silver maple.

The species name for the red maple is rubrum. In this case, the Latin species name describes the emerging red foliage, the red flowers and the reddish winged seeds.

If applicable, a cultivar name will also be included in the Latin name. Cultivar means cultivated form, and is abbreviated as cv. or cvs. Several other abbreviations can appear in a plant name, such as var. for variety, subsp. for subspecies, and x for a hybrid. Generally, Latin names are printed in italics.

The scientists responsible for determining the correct names are taxonomists. Over a period of time, they can change the name of a plant. When this happens, books and garden references published subsequently will often refer to the old name in parentheses.

Bad things can happen to good plants. Some years ago, the taxonomists renamed several popular plants. The much loved chrysanthemum or mum became Dendranthema, while the Shasta daisy became Leucanthemum.

For anyone interested in plant names, there are several enlightening books. Cambridge University Press has released an essential guide. The fourth edition of “The Names of Plants” by David Gledhill is the definitive guide to Latin names. The introduction explains all about how plants are given their Latin names and why. It also explains the role of the international group responsible for plant names. The introduction covers the history of botany back to the time of the ancient Greeks.

This book has a glossary of all the scientific names. Each plant name is traced to the original Greek, Latin, or other source. This covers the genus and species names, and also provides pronunciation and plurals. This book also has drawings for the leaf shapes, flower parts, and flower arrangements.

“The Naming of Names-The Search for Order in the World of Plants” by Anna Pavord was released by Bloomsbury. From beginning to end, it is a pleasure to read. This compelling book does much more than explain how the plants came to be named. While Carl Linnaeus is largely given credit for our modern binomial system, the author sets the record straight. She sheds light on the role that was played by many pivotal figures throughout the history of this scientific endeavor, and places all this within a cultural and political context.

In this process, the author also reveals the very roots of botany as well as the history of herbals and botanical illustrations. The author traces this back to the ancients. Readers will learn about the founders of botany, including Theophrastus, who was a student of Aristotle. This is beautifully illustrated with historical
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Content copyright © 2015 by Connie Krochmal. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Connie Krochmal. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Connie Krochmal for details.


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