Why We Use Botanical Names for Plants

Learn the Language of Plant Taxonomy

Bittersweet berries and husks covered with snow.

Takao Onozato / Aflo / Getty Images

For over 200 years we have used the classification model of botanical nomenclature (that is, scientific plant naming, also known as botanical names) instituted by Linnaeus (1707-1778), the language of plant taxonomy that is employed around the world. Plant taxonomy is the discipline underlying the system of classification used by botanists and horticulturists to organize plants and identify them clearly. Improving on the models developed by his predecessors, Linnaeus simplified the naming procedure through the "binomial" system.

The Binomial System

Linnaeus' binomial system uses one Latin name to indicate the genus, and another to indicate the specific epithet. Together, the genus and epithet comprise the "species." By definition, "binomial" means "characterized by having two names," from the prefix "bi-" (indicating "two") and the Latin word for "name," nomen.

For example, botanical nomenclature classifies Oriental bittersweet as Celastrus orbiculatus. The first part of the name, Celastrus, is the genus, the second, orbiculatus, the specific epithet. Although another plant, bittersweet nightshade, also has "bittersweet" in its common name, you know immediately when you see its Latin name (Solanum dulcamara, where the first Latin name is for the genus, nightshade, and the second is for the specific epithet, bittersweet) that it is not related to Celastrus orbiculatus (Solanum and Celastrus are two entirely different genera). A third plant, namely, Celastrus scandens, is also commonly referred to as "bittersweet" (American bittersweet), but the scandens in its botanical name clearly distinguishes it from its Oriental cousin.

Fun Fact

According to a report by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom, about 391,000 species of vascular plants are currently documented. 

Why We Use Botanical Plant Names

We use scientific plant names (or "botanical plant names") to avoid confusion since they are an international language of sorts. That does not mean that they, themselves are never confusing; botanists sometimes decide the current plant taxonomy is "wrong" and change the name. But, by and large, the use of the binomial system described above achieves greater clarity than the use of common plant names.

The Breakdown of a Botanical Name

Species, genus, and family and are the three classifications you need to know. The species is a subset of the genus, and the genus is a subset of a family.

Capitalization and Format

The genus begins with a capital letter, whereas the first letter in the specific epithet is lower-case. Both are italicized.

Translated Latin Names

In instances where we translate from Latin to arrive at the common name, we reverse the order of the names, putting the epithet before the genus.

  • Example: Solanum dulcamara
  • The common name is bittersweet nightshade, but solanum translates to nightshade and dulcamara translates to bittersweet.

Tip

The common name for a plant is not always a literal translation of the Latin name. For example, the common name for Celastrus scandens is American bittersweet, but the literal translation of the Latin, in this case, has nothing to do with either "American" or "bittersweet."

Third Names

Sometimes in plant taxonomy, you will see a third name. In such cases, we are simply getting more specific, accounting for variation within a species. Most commonly, this third name indicates a cultivar (cultivated variety); it will appear in single quotation marks and its first letter is capitalized.

But, sometimes, this third name indicates a variety (naturally occurring variety). A variety name is preceded by the abbreviation, "var." Unless the variety name is a proper noun, its first letter is not capitalized. But, like the genus name and specific epithet, the variety name is italicized.

Sometimes you will see spp., it means that the name is referring to several species within the genus.

Sometimes yet another word is added after the genus name and epithet, which is neither italicized nor set off by quotation marks—the name of the person who first described the plant. These names are sometimes abbreviated. When the name is abbreviated as "L," it stands for "Linnaeus."

Hybrids

When you see a genus name followed by the letter "x," followed, in turn, by an epithet, this is an indication that the plant is a cross between two different plant species—a "hybrid plant."

How to Find a Plant by Botanical Name

To look up a particular plant by botanical name, consult The Spruce's A-Z Plant Index and sort by botanical name. Do not be afraid to work with botanical nomenclature. It may seem intimidating at first, but you will soon recognize some terms that appear over and over again, establishing patterns: for example, the use of reptans in the name of a creeper.