What's in a name?

Forgive me for boasting, but I understand how Latin plant names work. Learning about botanical nomenclature is one of my proudest achievements (it’s up there with touch-typing and mastering choux pastry). But I also understand that a lot of people don’t get it at all. It looks confusing. And unnecessary. And what’s with all the italics and quote marks?

The first question a lot of people ask is why can’t we just use the common names? A daisy’s a daisy, right? Why bother with Bellis? Or should that be Erigeron? Or maybe Argyranthemum? You see, this is where it starts to get complicated. There are so many different kinds of daisies. Plus, common plant names often change from one UK county to the next, never mind once you start crossing international borders. The wildflower field scabious, for example, is also known as lady’s pincushion, gipsy rose and blue bonnets. So using the botanical name of a plant is the only way to guarantee people know exactly what you’re talking about, whether you’re at a garden centre, listening to Gardeners’ Question Time or researching which trees would be best for an open, windswept garden.

The botanical naming system used today was set up by Carl Linnaeus, a superbly organised 18th century Swedish biologist. Tired of his colleagues giving the same plants different names, he persuaded them to adopt his binomial system. This worked so well that it was taken up worldwide. Many of these names are perfectly logical, too. Take the spring climber Clematis montana: the first part of the name (the genus) groups the plant with others in the same family. The second part is the species of clematis, or branch of the family – montana meaning ‘of the mountains’. This is a particularly obvious example, but a lot of species names are just as easy to decipher, and prove handy for letting you know where a plant comes from and the conditions it prefers.

Clematis montana The Clematis montana bred by Vince and Sylvia Denny and named after their Lancashire parish - Broughton

Here’s a short list of some of the more common species names, and their meaning:

acaulis: stalkless, or apparently so

alba: white

amabilis: lovely

aquatica: from water

arborescens: tree-like

argentea: silver-leaved

aurantiaca: orange coloured

azurea: blue

campestris: growing in the fields/plains

canariense: of the Canary Islands

carnea: flesh coloured

chrysus: yellow

coccinea: scarlet

columnaris: columnar

communis: common

contorta: twisted

cordata: heart shaped

crispum: curled

denticulata: finely toothed

floribunda: many flowered

fortunei: after Fortune, the plant collector

fruticosa: shrubby

fulgens: glowing red

germanica: from Germany

italica: from Italy

latifolia: broad leaved

luteus: yellow

maculata: spotted


magnus: large

nana: dwarf

nigra: black

nobilis: noble, stately

officinalis: useful

palmatum: hand-like

palustris: of the marshes

parviflora: small flowered

pendula: weeping

persica: Persian

praecox: early flowering

prostrata: creeping

purpureus: purple

quinata: five-lobed

reptans: creeping

roseum: rosy coloured

rubra: dark

sibirica: from Siberia

speciosa: handsome, showy

sylvatica: of the woods

tomentosa: with downy foliage

variegatum: variegated

vera: true or typical species

virens: green

volubile: twining

vulgaris: common

wilsonii: after Professor E. H. Wilson


Japanese maple Acer palmatum – the clue’s in the leaf shape

The last species name, wilsonii, is just one of many derived from names of plant hunters, and it’s worth giving a thought to the trials they went through so that we can plant the odd rhododendron in a pot, or experiment with a kiwi fruit in the conservatory.

Ernest Henry ‘Chinese’ Wilson, born in 1876 in Chipping Camden, was one of the world’s greatest plant hunters and botanists. He’s credited with bringing Eastern Asian botany to the West, introducing several hundred new species to our gardens, mainly from China, ‘the Mother of Gardens’. From 1899 to his death, he travelled to dozens of countries collecting thousands of plants, cuttings and seeds, and taking hundreds of photographs of trees, plants and forests. He dodged plague in Hong Kong (on a trip in search of the dove tree), fought off recurring malaria, and was badly injured by a landslide in west Sichuan while searching for the regal lily – only to be killed in a car crash in 1930, in Massachusetts. Among his introductions to the West are the kiwi fruit (Actinidia deliciosa), paperbark maple (Acer griseum), Clematis armandii and Berberis julianae, as well as many rhododendrons.

But back to plant names. And what about the part in inverted commas – Lathurus odoratus ‘Our Harry’, for example? ‘Our Harry’ is the cultivar, and it’s where plant breeders come in. Lavandula angustifolia (common lavender) is the original species. To create a cultivar a plant breeder (most probably) would have noticed a flower spike that was, say, a bit pinker than the others on the plant. This, he or she would have cut off and propagated to make new plants with pink flowers. This cultivar, or ‘cultivated variety’, was named ‘Rosea’.

Pink Lavender The pink lavender that was cultivated and named ‘Rosea’

Finally, a few words on pronunciation. These lines on cyclamen, from an old gardening periodical, prove it’s something that’s been pondered long and hard for many years:

How shall we sound its mystic name

Of Greek descent and Persian fame?

Shall ‘ye’ be long and ‘a’ be short,

Or will the ‘y’ and ‘a’ retort?

Shall ’y’ be ilightly rippled o’er,

Or should we emphasise it more?

Cyclamen Pronounce it however you like

In my opinion, the pronunciation of your Latin plant name really doesn’t matter. Get the basic understanding of botanical naming under your belt, feel the pride, then just give it a whirl. After all, you’re already well on the way to being understood by the whole world.

Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer

One thought on “What's in a name?”

Leave a Reply
Hi, just a note to let you know that we do use cookies for our web site. They are used to help us determine what our customers really want and therefore to give them the best service they deserve. We also use cookies to enable you to buy products from us online and do so in a convenient and secure manner.

Thank you, The Ashridge Nurseries Team.

Back to top

Leave us a message!