Why Do Plants Have Latin Names?

Why Do Plants Have Latin Names?

By Michael Jenkins

One of the fun things about gardening is all the wonderfully cool, occasionally silly names that plants have. “Holy basil”, “devil’s darning needle”, and “prairie-fire” are all evocative of the nature and history of those plants, and they tell us a great deal about the ways humans have interacted with them over the years. However, they’re not always great for identification; holy basil is also known as “tulsi”, “tulasi”, or “tamole/domole” depending on where in the world you are. That’s just one example—most plants have several common names that are used regionally, and most plants have different common names in different languages. Some of these names overlap, with the same name being used for different plants. So, how do we know for sure which particular plant species we’re talking about? Botanists and gardeners have another solution: binomial nomenclature. Binomial nomenclature literally means “two-name (binomial) naming system (nomenclature)”, and these names are most often in scientific Latin. Perhaps ironically, binomial nomenclature is also referred to as “Latin binomials” or “scientific names”. You’ve likely seen these on nursery labels or seed packs—holy basil becomes “Ocimum tenuiflorum”, the ever-popular tomato is “Solanum lycopersicum”, and sunflowers are more properly known as “Helianthus annuus”. So what do those names mean, how do they work, and why are there two of them? In exploring why plants have Latin names, we get to expand our understanding of the history and science of gardening, so let’s dig in

How Do Scientific Names Work?

In explaining how binomial nomenclature works, it’s probably easiest to start with the name of a species we’re all familiar with—human beings. Scientifically, the binomial name for humans is Homo sapiens. The first part, Homo, refers to the genus, the broader group to which that particular species belongs. In this case Homo means “man/human being”. The species name comes next—in this case sapiens which means “wise” So Homo sapiens means “wise man” or “wise human”.

You may have noticed a few things, which are important in using binomial nomenclature correctly. The genus name is always capitalized, the species name is always in lowercase, and the whole name is most properly presented in italics. Now, nothing bad will happen if you forget to do these things, but it’s best practice and ensures that everything is clear when communicating with others.

What Do Binomial Names Mean?

Most of us aren’t fluent in Latin—and that’s OK! While binomial nomenclature makes use of a great many Latin or Latinized terms, some terms appear again and again and they’re very often descriptive of the plant. We don’t have the space to explain all of them here, but some common examples can enhance your understanding of binomial nomenclature and figure out what the plant might be like even before you’ve seen it in person!

Some names refer to the plant’s place of origin or its habitat:

  • canadensis Canada
  • chinensis China
  • japonica Japan
  • maritima Sea side/near the ocean
  • montana Mountains
  • occidentalis West - North America
  • orientalis East - Asia
  • sibirica Siberia
  • sylvestris Woodland
  • virginiana Virginia

Some binomial terms describe the plant’s color:

  • alba White
  • ater Black
  • azur Blue
  • caeruleus Blue
  • chrysus Yellow
  • coccineus Scarlet
  • ebenus Ebony
  • eburneus Ivory
  • erythro Red
  • ferrugineus Rusty
  • lacteus Milky
  • lividus Blue-gray
  • luridus Pale yellow
  • puniceus Red-purple
  • purpureus Purple
  • rosea Rose
  • rubra Red
  • sulphureus Yellow
  • virens Green

And some refer to the physical features of the plant:

  • anthos Flower
  • brevi Short
  • fili Threadlike
  • flora Flower
  • folius Foliage
  • grandi Large
  • hetero Diverse
  • laevis Smooth
  • lepto Slender
  • macro Large
  • medio Intermediate
  • mega Big
  • micro Small
  • mono Single
  • multi Many
  • phyllos Leaf/Foliage
  • platy Flat/Broad
  • poly Many

This is only a partial list—and even so it may seem bewildering! Don’t let that stress you out; you can look names up as you need to and your understanding and familiarity with binomial nomenclature can grow over time. No one is born knowing all of this, we all had to learn sometime so give yourself space to do just that!

We hope this helps you understand the scientific names of plants, how binomial nomenclature works, and how you can use them to help your own understanding and discussion of plants. Gardening is full of interesting things like this, and we think they make the whole experience that much richer!

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