Whats in a name?

Hi there,

In this enthralling piece i am going to reveal to you why us horticulturists/botanists and gardeners use latin names for plants.  Yes i know you think we’re crazy and why would you bother with this old antiquated language, but all will be revealed.  Here’s a few classic examples of why we don’t use common names for plants, or try not to.

  1. Red Gum.  Most of us know that the Red gum is the Eucalypt that lines a lot of our waterways.  It could also be the Red gum from forests on the east coast.  On the west side of the country Red gums are known for their brilliant summer flowers which can be white or pink or orange as well as red.  People call these 3 tree’s Red gums yet they are 3 distinctly different species.  Eucalyptus camaldulensis (red gum on our waterways), Angophora costata (red gum from the eastern forests), Eucalyptus ficifolia (red flowering gum from the west).  Three very different tree’s, yet all have the same common name which leads to confusion.  Hence why we use scientific names.
  2. Here’s a slightly different example.  Eucalyptus regnans, in Victoria its know as the Mountain Ash.  In Tasmania its known as the Swamp Gum, Stringy Gum and Tasmanian Oak.  So here’s one tree with numerous different common names.  Very easy to get them all confused.  This is why its important for any plant to have 1 scientific name, which means it cannot be confused with anything else the world over.
  3. Lily of the Valley.  In France its Muguet, in Russia its Landysh, in Germany its Maiblume and in England and elsewhere its Lily of the Valley.  Luckily it has one scientific name which is Convallaria majalis.  Thank goodness for that.

Did you notice anything about how the scientific names are written.  These are controlled by the International Code of botanical Nomenclature and the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants.  Suffice to say there are rules on how we write scientific names

Species.  The basic unit of classification is the species which is made up of two words.  The first being the genus (generic name) and the second is the specific name ( known as the specific epithet).  The two names are always written together and are known as the binomial.  The generic name always, yes always starts with a capital letter and the specific epithet always starts with a lower case.  They need to stand out as well, so should always be written in italics.  There are other technicalities which involve subspecies and the like, but we might leave them for a rainy day or never!

Rosa glauca, gives us the genus Rose and glauca gives us a description of a grey like coating or bloom on the stems of this rose and the colouring of the foliage which is said to have a grey like ting.  So the specific epithet gives us description to some degree of the plant or a particular feature of that plant.  Here’s another example,  Salvia taraxifolia, gives us the genus Salvia and the specific epithet describes the leaves which are Dandelion like, tarax being the genus of dandelion and folia gives us foliage like.

Cultivar.  Cultivated plants use the genus for the first name and then some other name which can be anything from a person to a town or place or any other meaning or just plain whatever.  These are always written like so. Salvia ‘Silkies Dream’.  Always italics with the first letter capital for the genus and normal writing for the named cultivar with appropriate capitals.

Hope that hasn’t muddied the waters too much, but when you see me using these scientific names, the above is the reasons why.  Happy gardening and



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s