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Spotlight on the Botanary

By Melody Rose (melodyJuly 14, 2012
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Even though Latin is used around the world for scientific names and having a basic understanding isnít all that difficult, many gardenersí eyes tend to glaze over when Latin terms are mentioned. Without this universally accepted system, scientists wouldnít be able to communicate and even your local garden center would have confusing situations.

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Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus (Carl Von Linne) was the father of our modern day binomial system in 1753 he published Species Plantarum which explained his system. Most everyone quickly adopted his binomial system (which means "two names") and his legacy remains to this day.

ImageFor our purposes, we'll learn about the genus and species. The genus is loosely the same as our surnames and plants that belong to the same genus generally share similar characteristics. The species designation is again, loosely based on our first names and denotes a specific individual. A familiar example would be Acer, which are the maples. All maples are Acers, but within that genus, we have Acer rubrum (red maple) and Acer saccharum (sugar maple). The species, or specific epithet is a descriptive. Rubrum means ‘red ‘and saccharum means ‘sweet.' The first letter in the genus is always capitalized and the species name is always written in lower case.

Since many scientists of that day were educated in classical Latin, the system has a number of plants named after Roman or Greek gods, such as Iris. Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow and Hera, who was the queen of the gods, honored her with a flower that bloomed in all the colors of her robe.

ImageSome Latin names honor botanists or explorers, such as Monarda, named for Nicholas Monardes, a 16th Century physician and botanist from Seville, Spain. The genus Magnolia was named for French botanist, Pierre Magnol (1638-1715).

ImageDescriptives are often easy to decipher, especially the colors. Forms of the word azure means ‘blue'. Alba, albus, albacains and similar words mean ‘white'. Rosea and roseum denote pink or reddish color. Aureus means 'golden'. When paired with another descriptive, the species name is even more specific. Many of you have seen plants with the albo-marginata designation. This simply means ‘white stripes' and a number of variegated plants are tagged with this descriptive. Botanists have a sense of humor and some names reflect this. A recent discovery in Borneo is a new fungus named Spongiforma squarepantsii, because of its similar appearance to a popular yellow cartoon sponge.

The top left image is Acer sacchrum, the sugar maple. Lower left is Asclepias syriaca, milkweed. Asklepios was the Greek god of healing and syrica means 'of, or from Syria". The image on the right is Vitis rotundifolia, the muscadine grape. Vitis is the Latin word for vine and rotundifolia means "rounded leaves". Every name means something specific and discovering the story behind the name is an interesting part of gardening. 

Our Botanary database is a wonderful way of familiarizing yourself with these terms. Whenever you happen across an unfamiliar word, it is easy to find the meaning right here in the Dave's Garden community. Located under the Guides and Information tab at the top of each page, the Botanary at the time of this article contains definitions and pronunciations on 21,228 terms. Since it is an ever-expanding database, we hope these numbers will increase. If your plant's botanical name isn't listed, we'll be happy to help you add it.


  About Melody Rose  
Melody RoseI come from a long line of Kentuckians who love the Good Earth. I love to learn about every living thing, and love to share what I've learned. Photography is one of my passions, and all of the images in my articles are my own, except where credited.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Systematic botany. KashtanGeorge 1 15 Jan 6, 2013 6:02 AM
Forced to learn the Latin names! kmm44 1 11 Jul 20, 2012 7:21 AM
Fascinating! jazzy1okc 3 20 Jul 17, 2012 11:01 AM
Useful and interesting.....thank you! carrielamont 1 19 Jul 15, 2012 6:10 AM
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