90515thumbSimply put, ‘nomenclature’ is how things get named. It is not exactly like naming a child or a dog, or even a new small country in the South Pacific. There is a certain technique to it that is more like naming cars. Well, it ‘was’ like naming cars, a long time ago when cars had simple names rather than numbers and letters. Coincidentally, nomenclature of plants is getting to be just as confusing.

Plants and other biological organisms are assigned Latin names, which for plants, are also known as botanical names. These names are universal, for everyone, everywhere in the World. Almost all plants also have common names that are more or less regional. That is why what is known as Norway maple here is known as sycamore in England, but both are Acer platanoides everywhere.

The first part of a Latin name designates the ‘genus’, which is the more ‘general’ of the two parts of the name. (genus = general) For example, all true maples, including those that are known as sycamores in England, are within the same genus of ‘Acer‘. Genus names are like ‘Buick’, ‘Oldsmobile’ and ‘Pontiac’ for cars. They distinguish a general group, but are no more specific than that.

The second part of a Latin name designates the ‘species’ which is the more ‘specific’ of the two parts of the name (species = specific) For example, within the genus off Acer, the Norway maple is designated as Acer platanoides. Species names are like ‘Electra’, ‘Riviera’ and ‘Skylark’ for cars. They designate specific cars within the big general group that is collectively known as ‘Buick’.

There are of course more general and more specific classifications as well. Just as Buick, Olsmobile and Pontiac are within the group known as General Motors, the genus of Acer is within the family known as Sapindaceae along with Aesculus (horse chestnut) and Litchi (Lychee). ‘Schwedleri’ is a cultivar (cultivated variety) of Acer platanoides, just as some Buick Electra are ‘Limited’.

Incidentally, rules of proper nomenclature dictate that Latin names are italicized, and that the genus name is capitalized, while the species name is not.

15 thoughts on “Nomenclature Is More Than Botanical

  1. Excellent description of plant and animal names. When was actively working with plants I found this to be a major problem with little understanding. Add scientific name and no understood everywhere talking about.

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    1. Ironically, they are intended to simplify communication. It is useful when communicating with those in different regions; but it would be nice if some of the names were not so complicated!

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  2. And it is so important to get to grips with it so that we are all on the same page when we are talking about plants. I often find with American blogs that I have no idea what people are talking about until I study the photos as the common names are totally unfamiliar. If you are going to go to the bother of learning a name why not learn the correct one?

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    1. It is especially important nowadays because so man of us communicate with so many others in other regions. Common names are fine within the same region, where we all know what they mean.


  3. A complication is that plant names seem to get changed quite often. Perhaps it is just that science is advancing in some way at the moment (dna testing?) and it will all settle down. I have only just noticed Dicentra spectabilis has become Lamprocapnos for example.

    I don’t like it when you want to use a possessive with a cultivar name that ends in ‘s’. Rosa ‘The Shepherdess”s petals just looks weird.

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      1. That is how we were taught to do it. However, I still am not clear on how one spells “men’s”. I think that is correct, but could it be “mens'”? or is that redundant (because ‘men’ is already plural.) I can see that spell check does not like it.

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      2. I think it’s mens’ but I ‘missed’ English Grammar when my dad said to me one day that he was going to London for a business trip and that I’d learn much more than at school (I have no memories of doing grammar). – he was very right

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    1. DNA testing has something to do with it. In some cases, it is just some botanist trying to make his mark. All these weird hybrids nowadays do not help, because now one knows what species to put them into, so they are just not given a name. (We used to at least make up a name for the hybrid.)

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  4. A nice analogy Tony. Here in NZ the nomenclaturists are in full swing – they keep on renaming things (mainly fom dna analysis – which is all fine but they can’t seem to agree on the same genetic markers);

    So Hebe has just been changed back to Veronica, which is what it was in previously. Nothofagus (a tree genus) has been split into two, one of which is the horrible-sounding Fuscospora – it makes no sense and is loosing the mellifluous botanical-latin. It also makes databasing and searching very difficult as not all new papers put in the superseded synonyms.

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