60302thumbNomenclature is a standardized technology of naming. It dictates the universal ‘botanical’ names of all plants, so that everyone everywhere can communicate more efficiently about horticulture. Botanical names might seem confusing, and maybe even unflattering, but they eliminate the confusion associated with regional common names that are as variable as languages and cultures.

For example, the white pine from Northern California is not the same as the white pine from Maine, even though they both have the same common name. However, Pinus monticola, the white pine from Northern California, is the same everywhere, even if grown in Maine. This particular botanical name is only for this particular white pine, so eliminates confusion with other white pines.

Botanical names are also known as ‘Latin’ names because they are (obviously) Latin. The first name is the more general part of the name, so is known as the ‘genus’ (or ‘genera’ in plural). The second name is the more specific part of the name, so is known as the ‘species’ (or ‘specie’ in plural). The genus name should be capitalized; but the species name is not. Both are italicized.

Acer is the genus of all maples. Salix is the genus of all willows. These names identify particular genera, but are no more specific alone. Acer rubrum more specifically identifies a popular North American maple that is known locally as red maple. Salix babylonica specifically identifies a common willow known locally as weeping willow. This is almost as specific as nomenclature gets.

A few specie have varieties or cultivars (cultivated varieties) which are variants of the basic species. Variety or cultivar names are added after specie names. They are capitalized, unitalicized and semi-quoted. For example, Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ is the October Glory red maple. Olea europaea ‘Little Ollie’ is a fruitless, dense and short cultivar of the familiar European olive tree.

Nomenclature of plants is similar to nomenclature of cars. Buick, Chrysler and Mercury are genera of cars. Electra, Imperial and Grand Marquis are specie of Buick, Chrysler and Mercury, respectively. ‘Limited’, ‘Custom’ and ‘Brougham’ are their cultivars. There are of course many more plants with bigger and stranger names, but the system for identification works the same way.

10 thoughts on “Nomenclature Is The Name Game

  1. I just love that you related this to car names. That’s exactly what it’s like. The only issue we have now is some of the crazy car makers that call their cars by numbers. And yes, I do know that technically some of the patented plant names are really something like that as well. That’s equally painful to me.


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    1. When we were in school in the 1980s, nomenclature was still standardized. Now, it is increasingly difficult to keep track of. With all the weird promiscuity of breeding and developing newer and (so-called) improved varieties and cultivars, it is difficult to identify plants by specie. It is like my Chrysler that was made by Mercedes Benz, and outfitted with a Japanese engine. I would have elaborated on that, but there is limited space in my gardening column.

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  2. One good reason to join native plant societies or other plant-related groups is that you get to hang around with people who know how to pronounce all those names! And what a revelation it was when I discovered online sources that provide pronunciations, too.

    I don’t know if you ever saw it on my blog, but I once wrote a poem about taxonomy — it was great fun.


    1. Ha, I missed that one, and it was only a month ago.
      I am none too keen on California Native Plant Societies because they have certain agendas. Like many clubs, they dictate what they believe should be popular and ignore all else. They are not very interested in the two native redwoods, which are two of the most interesting specie in the World. Nor are they interested in the bigleaf maple or the desert fan palm, which happen to be two of my favorite specie. I think that the maple is not Californian enough for them. They really like the Fremontodendron californicum, which used to be known as flannel bush. (I am not sure what it is know as now, since we tend to make up fancier names as we go.) It is exquisite in the wild, but does not like to be in landscapes; and I just plain dislike it in cultivation. It is like the classic car clubs in which most members are only interested in Corvettes, Mustangs and the 1957 Bel Air. Buicks are unheard of.


  3. One thing that drives me crazy is when a garden blogger mixes both common names and Latin names in a single post! I want to scream, “One or the other, PLEASE!” I’m not sure why it bugs me so.
    I found that bay is one of those things sold where you NEED to know which one it is. I do not want the usual bay sold (bay laurel or Laurus nobilis), I want the California bay or Oregon myrtle (Umbellularia Californica) I grew up with in the SF bay area! Bay laurels will not survive my current winters, but the local stores, and even nurseries, sell them. I was surprised the nursery that carries natives would have the bay laurel instead of the one from here.
    I like your car analogy. I usually think of it like dogs! But, I think of most things in relation to dogs!

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    1. I typically cite the common name, followed immediately by the Latin name, but then use only the common name afterward. Some clients enjoy using the long Latin names to impress clients, such as ‘Metasequoia glyptostroboides’ instead of ‘dawn redwood’. What is worse is that they use it in a landscape that it is not appropriate to, just so they can use the name (over and over and over), and brag to their client about how rare it is. (Well, it is not exactly rare if so many landscapers are using it to impress their clients. That is like those old BMW commercials that explain how popular their cars are, but that they are also so distinctive as if no one else drives them.) One of my clients referred to Japanese maples ad ‘Acer maples’! It still makes me cringe. To make it worse, when I tried to explain that all maples are Acers, he insisted that the bigleaf maple and Norway maples were ‘just’ maples. Oh my.


  4. I had no idea that there were two different white pines! My favorite example of this sort of thing is the sycamore—a Platanus in North America and an Acer in Britain.

    One minor correction: species is the same singular and plural. specie is money.

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    1. We have a Western white pine too, and to those who live within the native range, it is ‘the’ white pine.
      I find it amusing and sometimes annoying that English horticultural professionals insist that their designations of Platanus and Acer are correct. I mean, these are the same people who drive on the wrong side of the road. I also find Platanux X acerifolia and Acer platanoides to be amusing. The sycamore with maple leaves and the maple with sycamore leaves, or the other way around in England.
      I still use the term ‘specie’ as plural out of habit from the 1980s. I prefer it that way. Some of my old professors might not like it, but some tolerate it. Besides, as a horticulturist, money is a topic that I do not often write about.


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