Botanical Names Explained

It’s a complex world out there and the botanists don’t seem to make it any easier! And there is nothing more confusing than listening to a bunch of gardeners talk in streams of apparently meaningless gobbledy-gook. Who do they think they are?

But hold on a minute, don’t put it down to garden snobbery. Botanical names give us clues about plants, their relatives, their cultural needs and they are well worth learning.

Botanical, Latin or Scientific Names?

All plants have a unique name and this is often called the scientific name, botanical or the ‘Latin name’ as many are based on Latin. Many botanical names are derived from Greek, a persons name (the discoverer, sponsor or someone-else altogether!), are descriptive or give the place of origin of the plant. For this reason we prefer to use the term ‘botanical name’ rather than ‘Latin name’.

The system we use today is based on that developed by Linneaus, a Swedish naturalist, developed in the 18th century. Botanical names all have two main parts: a generic or family name and a specific or species name. Thus, the human world we have the Brown family, and we have John, Jane and Mary Brown within that. In the plant world we have the celmisia family, Celmisia, and its member Celmisia semicordata, Celmisia spectabilis, etc.

Plants have names, just like people

The difference between the human naming convention and that of plants is that each pant generic or family name occurs only once. Specific names may occur a number of times (e.g. reptans or alba) but, coupled with the generic name, each plant has a unique name. Think of all the New Zealand plants that are Something chathamica!

Why Not Common Names?

Many gardeners and most plant nurseries prefer botanical names as they avoid the confusion that common names can cause. Common names can be very local, some plants don’t have a common name, and others have more than one.

More than one plant has the same common name; in the UK an ‘Ash’ is actually a Fraxinus while in the USA it is really a Sorbus; ‘Arums’ are frequently not Arums at all Zantedischia; and an Aconite can be the late summer flowering, deep blue flowered perennial Aconitum or the tiny winter flowering bulb Eranthis hyemalis. In NZ a ‘Mingimingi’ can be either Coprosma propingqua, Cyathodes juniperina or Cyathodes robusta which also comes with either a white fruit or a red fruit.

And then there are the plants that have more than one common name; the climbing pest Clematis vitalba is known as Old Man’s Beard and Traveller’s Joy; Bergamont and Bee’s Balm are both Monarda didyma; and Erythronium as Trout Lilies and Dogs Tooth Violets.

Parts of Botanical Names

The way the name is built up is based on Latin grammar rules. Each plant family name (eg. ‘Cordyline’) is a noun and has a gender (i.e. is male or female). Species within each family are adjectives (‘australis’, ‘indivisa’, etc.).

Botanical names are usually written in italics as in Cordyline indivisa.

Sometimes, perhaps too often for gardeners’ liking, the scientists will change a botanical name and thus we get Brachyglottis monroi (syn. Senecio monroi) where the name in brackets is the previous or, occasionally, less well-known name. This is also known as the ‘synonym’.

The great value in understanding the botanical name comes from following the family trees through and using the other, descriptive clues in the name. Celmisia spectabilis is a very showy or spectacular celmisia, Coprosma prostrata and Cotoneaster horizontalis are prostrate growers, and Cercis chinensis comes from China and Cercis canadensis from Canada; Geum montanum comes from the mountains; Prunus autumnalis flowers in the autumn.

So while sometimes it does seem as if ‘It’s all Greek to me!’, it really is worth finding out the botanical name.

Using the botanical rather than a common name is not garden snobbery. It is simple good sense, and it saves the confusion common names can cause, unless it is as unpronounceable as Paeonia mlokosewitschii, named for Frederich Mlokosewitch who found it, but known almost universally as ‘Molly the Witch’.

The Structure of Plant Families

Plant Orders

A step up from the botanical name we have plant orders. These are larger families of plants. A plant order is a family of different genera that are sufficiently similar, e.g. Magnoliaceae or Ranunculaceae are plant orders that contain many different genera that share a key characteristic(s).

The plant order is not included in the botanical name, except in scientific situations or in gardening textbooks and plant dictionaries where it gives us clues that clematis, ranunculus and hellebores, all members of Ranunculaceae, have something in common.

Genera

The genera or genus a plant family such as the New Zealand family of pohutukawa and rata trees is Metrosideros, and within this genus we find Metrosideros excelsa, Metrosideros umbellata, Metrosideros robusta, etc

Species

A species is those plants that are the same and produce viable offspring. Plants within a species can vary in small ways, such as differences leaf colouration resulting from environment, climate and soil. And, so, within species you can have subspecies, varieties, cultivars and hybrids.

Variety

Differences in climate, soils, and aspect can cause these differences to be sufficiently distinct that botanists will distinguish between different varieties (often shown as ‘var.’) within a species. Clianthus puniceus var. maximus differs from the so-called ‘typical’ form Clianthus puniceus.

Subspecies

When there is no overlap in the geographical distribution of the plants, the variety may be called a subspecies (often shown as ‘ssp.’, as in Crocus biflorus ssp. crewei). These are still able to produce offspring when two subspecies within the same plant species are brought together.

Cultivars

Sometimes gardeners may select a particular plant because of leaf colour form or flower. This selection is still genetically identical to these within the species and must be propagated vegetatively (cuttings, division etc) to continue the desired attribute, as seed grown progeny may not ‘come true’, that is, they may not carry the particular attribute sought.

These plants are called cultivars and the cultivar name is shown in inverted commas, e.g. Astelia chathamica ‘Silver Spear’

Hybrids

Where different species within a family or different families produce offspring, the new plants are called hybrids. Hellebores are very promiscuous in this way. Apart from physically separating parent plants or hand pollinating it is all too easy to end up with hybrids rather than the species plants you may covet.

These plants are shown as a ‘cross’ such as Corokia x virgata ‘Bronze King’, where virgata is not a species but a hybrid between two of the Hamamelis species. Camellia x williamsii ‘Donation’ is a hybrid where Camellia williamsii is known to be a parent. Hybrids can also be ‘intersectional hybrids’, that is, they occur between different genera as in x Cupressocyparis, a cross between Chamaecyparis and Cupressus.

Some Botanical Terms Explained

The descriptive clues in botanical names arerewarding if you translate or understand the terms themselves.

Some names relate to flower colour, others to habit, and others to origin. Some of the most common terms are listed here, as well as some specially New Zealand botanical terms.

A
• alba white
• albicans becoming white
• albiflorus white flower
• alpina alpine
• angustifolius narrow leaved
• apetala has no petals
• arachnoides spider or spider webs e.g. Sempervivium arachnoideum, the house leek
has spider web like appearance
• arboreus or aborescens tree like appearance
• arenaria of sand, referring to plants from sandy places
• argentea or argyraea silver or silvery
• atro dark coloured as in ‘atropurpureum’
• attenuata narrows to a point
• aurantica orange
• aurea or aureus gold or golden
• australis southern
• azurea azure or sky blue

B
• banksii named for Sir Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook’s voyages
• bellidioides daisy-like appearance, referring to bellis, the daisy
• bicolour two coloured
• bidwillii named for John Bidwill, early New Zealand alpine plant enthusiast
• Brachyglottis short tongued, referring to the short ray florets
• buchananii named for John Buchanan, early New Zealand botanist

C
• caerulea dark blue
• caerulecens bluish, blue tinged
• campanulatus bell shaped
• canadensis of Canada or North-eastern America
• canina of dogs, usually means inferior plant (the Romans were not dog-lovers!)
• cardinalis scarlet, cardinal red
• carnea deep pink
• cataria of cats, eg Nepeta cataria, catmint
• carractae of waterfalls
• chathamicus/chathamica of the Chatham Islands
• chinensis of China
• chlorantha green flowered
• cinerea ash colour, greyish
• coccineum scarlet
• columaris columnar
• colensoi named for William Colenso, early botanist
• confertiflora flowers that are crowded together
• cordata heart shaped
• crassifolius/crassifolia/crassifolium with thick leaves
• cunnihamii named for Allan Cunningham, early botanist

D
• decora beautiful
• delayavi for Abbe Jean Marie Delavay missionary and collector
• dieffenbachii for Dr Ernst Dieffenbach, naturalist
• discolor two different colours
• dissecta deeply cut, usually of a leaf
• domestica cultivated
• davidii for Pere Arman David, missionary plant collector
• Dracanena female dragon

E
• Echinops a hedgehog, spiky
• Echium vipers ( a snake)
• Erodium heron’s bill, referring to the shape of the seedpods
• excelsa/excelsum/excelsus tall
• eximia exceptional

F
• fibrosa fibrous
• flava clear yellow
• florida flowering
• -florus of flowers
• foetidus smelling, stinking
• -folius of leaves
• forestii for George Forest, Scottish plant collector
• fragrans/fragrantissima fragrant
• frutcosa shrubby
• fulvida tawny coloured

H
• haastii for Julius von Haast, explorer
• hastata spear shaped
• hookeri for Sir William or Sir Joseph Hooker, directors of Royal Botanic Gardens
Kew
• hortensia of gardens
• horizontalis flat, horizontal
• humilis low growing

G
• Geranium crane’s bill, referring to the shape of the seedpods
• gracilis graceful
• graminea grass-like

I
• ilicifolia holly-like (from Ilex or Holly)
• incana grey
• indica of India
• insignis notable
• -issima very (as in ‘bellissima’)
• isophylla equal sized leaves
• ixioides ixia like

J
• japonica of Japan
• jucundum attractive example

K
• kirkii for Thomas Kirk, botanist

L
• laetus/laetum milky
• latifolius/latifolia broad leaved
• lessonii/lessoniana for Pierre Lesson surgeon and botanist
• lineata striped, with lines
• lucida/lucens shining, bright
• lutea yellow
• lutescens becoming yellow
• lyallii for David Lyall, surgeon

M
• macrantha having large flowers
• marcrocarpa having large fruit
• marcophylla having large leaves
• meleagris spotted like a guinea fowl as in Fritillaria meleagris
• melissa honey bee
• microphylla very small leaved
• monroi for Sir David Monro, plant collector
• montana/montanum of the mountains
• moschatum musky scented
• myosotis mouse’s ear

N
• nigra black
• novae-zelandiae of New Zealand

O
• officinalis sold as a herb
• orientalis eastern

P
• paniculata having flowers in panicles
• Pelargonium stork’s bill, referring to the shape of the seedpods
• petriei for Donald Petrie, plant collector
• praecox early, of flowering
• procumbens prostrate
• procurrens spreading
• prolifera prolific or free flowering
• prostrata prostrate or lying on the ground
• pumila/pumilo dwarf
• purpurea purple (Echinea purpurea)
• purpurascens purplish, tinged purple

R
• Ranunculus frog, because both like marshy, boggy ground
• recta upright
• reflexa bent backwards
• reptans or repens creeping
• richardii for Achille Richard, French botanist
• rigens/rigida rigid or stiff habit
• roseum rose colour
• rotundata rounded
• rotundifolia having round-shaped leaves
• rubra/rubrum red
• rugosa/rugosum wrinkled
• rupestris growing in rocks

S
• salicina/salicifolia willow like
• sanguinea blood red
• scandens climbing
• serotina late flowering or late ripening
• serpens creeping
• spictata in spikes
• stans/stricta erect or upright
• supine supine or prostrate

T
• trigida spotted like a tiger

U
• umbellatus flowers appearing to be in umbels
• ursinum a bear, referring to shaggy appearance

V
• vernus of spring
• viridis/virens green
• viridfolius green leaved
• versicolor multi coloured
• vulgaris common

Z
• Zebrina zebra, referring to the stripes

Botanical Terms – New Zealand Plant Names

New Zealand plants are special. Many are unique to our island country and found
nowhere else in the world.

The descriptive clues in botanical names are rewarding if you translate or
understand the terms themselves. The names of our plants reflect their discoverers, place of
origin and our history.

A
• Aciphylla the Spaniard for the sharp, needle leaves
• Agathis the kauri, from agathis ‘ball of thread’ for the distinctive cones
• Arthropodium the rengarenga lily, from ‘arthro’ a joint and ‘podion’ stalk (has jointed
pedicels)
• Astelia stem-less
• australis southern, as in Cordyline australis

B
• banksii named for Sir Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook’s voyages
• bidwillii named for John Bidwill, early New Zealand alpine plant enthusiast
• buchananii named for John Buchanan, early New Zealand botanist

C
• Celmisia mountain daisies, after Celmisios in Greek mythology
• chathamicus/chathamica of the Chatham Islands
• Clianthus kaka beak, from ‘kleos’ glory and ‘anthos’ flower for the distinctive flowers
• colensoi named for William Colenso, early botanist
• Coprosma smelling of manure
• Cordyline the cabbage tree, meaning a club as the large and fleshy roots resemble
• Corokia from the Maori name ‘Korokio’
• cunnihamii named for Allan Cunningham, early botanist

D
• Dicksonia the tree fern, for James Dickson a Scottish nurseryman and naturalist
• dieffenbachii for Dr Ernst Dieffenbach, naturalist
• Dracophyllum the grass trees, from ‘draco’ dragon and ‘phyllum’ leaf

G
• Griselinia the broadleaf, for Franseco Griselini, naturalist

H
• haastii for Julius von Haast, explorer
• Hebe for the Greek Goddess of youth ‘Hebe’
• Hoheria for the Moari name ‘Houhere’
• hookeri for Sir William or Sir Joseph Hooker, directors of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

K
• kirkii for Thomas Kirk, early botanist

L
• Leptospermum the manuka, ‘leptos’ or slender and ‘ sperma’ or seed for the narrow seeds
• lessonii/lessoniana for Pierre Lesson, surgeon and botanist
• lyallii for David Lyall, surgeon

M
• Metrosideros the rata and pohutukawa for their very hard wood; ‘metra’ heartwood and ‘sideros’ iron hard
• monroi for Sir David Monro, plant collector
• Muehlenbeckia after Muehlenbeck, a French physician and botanist
• Myosotidium the Chatham Island Forget-me-not, for Myosotis the European forgetme-not

N
• Nothofagus native beech, from ‘nothos’ false and ‘fagus’ the beech
• novae-zelandiae meaning ‘of New Zealand’

O
• Olearia because it resembles an olive tree (Olea)

P
• Pachystegia the Marlborough Rock Daisy, from ‘pakys’ or thick for the thick leaves
• Phormium New Zealand flax, from ‘phormoin’ or a mat, a reference to the traditional Maori weaving of flax and flax fibres
• Pittosporum for the sticky seeds, as ‘pitta’ means pitch or tar and ‘sporum’ seeds
• Plagianthus ‘plagios’ oblique and ‘anthhos’ flower for the asymmetrical flowers
• Podocarpus the totara, from ‘podos’ foot and ‘karpos’ fruit for the stalked fruit
• Pseudopanax lancewoods and the five-finger, from ‘pseudo’ false and ‘panax’ a related genus

R
• richardii for Achille Richard, French botanist

S
• sinclairii Andrew Sinclair an early plant collector
• solandri Daniel Solander botanist on the Cook voyages
• Sophora the kowhai, from ‘sophera’ the Arabic name for a tree with pea shaped flowers

T
• traversii William Travers early plant collector, lawyer and politician

W
• williamsii for William Williams, Bishop of Waiapu in the nineteenth century

X
• Xeronema Poor Knights Lily, from ‘xeros’ dry