Gardening Has Something In Common With Automobiles.

Buick is the genus. Electra is the species. Buick Electra is universally the most elegant luxury sedan of all time!

Horticulturists, biologists, and many other professionals who may interact with colleagues who speak other languages or even slightly different regional dialects use Latin to identify, among other things, biological organisms. Latin names may be cumbersome to pronounce and daunting to spell, but are universal to those of us who use them. This is important because common names are so regionally variable.

For example, some of the European maples that we know as maples here are known as sycamores in England, but are known everywhere by their Latin name of Acer. Similarly, North American sycamores that are known as maples or plane trees in various regions are all likewise known everywhere by their Latin name of Platanus. The universality of Latin names therefore facilitates accurate identification.

Latin names are very helpful when researching plants. A tree known simply as a ‘cedar’ might be a calocedrus, arborvitae, juniper, cypress, chamaecyparis or a true cedar, just to name a few. Knowing that the particular tree is more specifically a ‘red cedar’ perhaps limits the possibilities to arborvitae or juniper. Identifying the tree specifically as a Juniperus virginiana will help us find the most accurate information about it, even though it is not really a cedar at all, but a juniper. Juniperus is the general ‘genus’ name of all junipers. Virginiana is the specific ‘species’ name of the particular juniper that is known locally as the Eastern red cedar. (‘Genera’ and ‘specie’ are plural for ‘genus’ and ‘species’.)

Latin names work like the names of cars. Buick, Chrysler and Mercury are all like genus names. Electra, Imperial and Grand Marquis are all like species names of particular Buicks, Chryslers and Mercurys. ‘Limited’, ‘Custom’ and ‘Brougham’ are like variety names, like ‘Variegata’, ‘Compacta’, and ‘Schwedleri’.

As universal as Latin names should be, a few sometimes get changed. This can be confusing, and causes some plants to become known more commonly by either their new or old name, as well as the other name as a ‘synonym’. For example, Dietes bicolor and Morea bicolor are the same plant; but not many know for certain which name is more correct. It is like when Datsun became Nissan, but was also known as Datsun for many years afterward.


Nomenclature Is The Name Game

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.