Understanding Botanical Names

To a layperson, the botanical names sound very intimidating. It is not uncommon to wonder why have such complex names for plants, and why can't we just use common names. The answer is that, common names do not uniquely specify a plant. You can have more than one plant called trumpet vine or yellow bells. The botanical names, on the other hand, uniquely specify every plant.

Another important fact is that a botanical name may tell you much more about a plant than a common name. There is a meaning associated with each part of the name. This will be clear in the following. The botanical names consist of two parts (or epithets), genus and the specific epithet (species for short):

Botanical name = Genus + species
Genus: A genus refers to a group of plants which share certain structural characteristics. The genus name may come from mythology, literature, people, places, or something the plant resembles.
Species: The species name usually refers to a place where the plant is native, the plant's appearance, or the name of the person credited with discovering it. Individual species are precisely identified by analyzing the flowers and seeds of each plant. The determining criteria might be the number of petals on the flower, or a certain characteristic of the seed.

Example : Calliandra haematocephala

Calliandra - Calli = beautiful Andra = Male flower parts or stamens. This means, plant with beautiful stamens.
haematocephala - haema - blood red cephale head; front. This means, one with blood-red head or front.
To see how all this agrees with the flower, click here. This example shows that just knowing the name gives one lots of information about the flower.
This system was developed by Carl Linnaeus, an 18th century botanist. Today, the name of a plant is coined by the botanists who first describe (identify as new) the plant, after analyzing the characters and attributes of the plant. The rules of naming are governed by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN). The ICBN is in turn updated from time to time by a world-wide group of botanists.

Colors of Flowers/Foliage

alba, albus - white
arg, argenteus - silvery
ater - black
aurantiaca - orange
aureus - golden
aure, aurea, aureum - gold
azurea, azureus - azure, sky blue
caesius - blue gray
caerula - deep blue
candidus - pure white, shiny
canus - ashy gray, hoary
carneus - flesh colored
citrinus - yellow
coeruleus - dark blue
coccineus - scarlet
concolor - one color
croceus - yellow
cruentus - bloody
discolor - two or separate colors
flava, flavum - yellow
glaucus - covered with gray bloom
griseum - gray
incanus - gray, hoary
lutea, luteus - reddish yellow
miniata - of a reddish color
nigra - black
purpurea, purpureus - purple
rosea - rose-colored
rubens, ruber - red, ruddy
rubra, rubrum - red
rufus - ruddy
sanguinea - blood-red
viridis - green

Leaf Form

acerifolius - maplelike leaves
abr - delicate leaved
angustifolius - narrow leaves
aquifolius - spiney leaves
buxifolius - leaves like boxwood
ilicifolius - hollylike leaves
lanceolata - lance-shaped
lauriflolius - laurel-like leaves
longifolia - long-leaved
macrophylla - large-leaved
microphylla - small-leaved
parvifolia - small-leaved
parvifolius - small leaves
palmate, palmatum - hand-shaped leaves
populifolius - poplarlike leaves
rotundifolia - round-leaved
salicifolius - willowlike leaves

Plant Smell, Taste

amara, amarus - bitter
arom - odor
dulce - sweet
foetida - foul smelling
fragrans - fragrant
fragrantissima - very fragrant
mosch - musk odor
odorata - scented

Plant Peculiarities

acaulis - stemless
amabile, amabilis - beautiful
blanda - pleasent
communis - common
contorta - contorted growth habit
cordata - heart-shaped
crispa - finely waved, curled
florida, floridus - flowering
gracilis - graceful
grandiflora - large-flowered
hybridus - hybrid
incana - gray-haired
lactea - milky
laevis - smooth
maculata - spotted
majus - larger
maxima - largest
millefolium - thousand-leaved
minor, minus - smaller
minim - very small
minut, minutus - very small
mollis - soft and/or hairy
mon - one (one leaf, one flower)
multiflora - many-flowered
nitida, nitidum - shining
officinalis - used as
perenne, perennis - perennial
pictum - painted
pulchella - pretty
punctata - spotted
semperflorens - everblooming
sempervirens - evergreen
speciosa - showy
spectabilis - spectacular
spinosissimus - spiniest
spinosus - spiny
superbum - superb
tomentosa, tomentosum - hairy
umbellata - having flowers in umbels
variegata - variegated
villosa, villosum - softly hairy
vulgaris - common

Plant Shape

arborescens - treelike
elata - tall
elegans - elegant, slender, willowy
recta, erecta - upright, erect
fruticosa - shrublike
grand, grandi - big
humilis - low-growing
nana - dwarf, miniature
pendula -drooping, pendulous
prostrat, prostratum, procumbens - prostrate
pumilia - low-growing, dwarf
repens, reptans - creeping
scandens - climbing

Origin of Species

aethiopium - Africa
alpin - alpine regions
andi - Andes
antill - West Indies
australis - southern
barbadensis - native to Barbados
borealis - northern
campestris - of the field or plains
canadensis - from Canada or America
canariensis - from the Canary Islands
capensis - from the Cape of Good Hope
chilensis - from Chile
chinensis - from China
europa - from Europe
hortensis - of the garden
indica - from India
insularis - of the island
japonica - japonicum - from Japan
littoralis - of the seashore
maritima - from near the sea
montana, montanus - from the mountains
palustris - from marshes or wetlands
riparius - of river banks
rivalis, rivularis - of brooks
saxatilis - inhabiting rocks
virginiana - from Virginia