How Plants Get Their Names


Bob, June, Matilda,…we’re not talking about individual names of individual plants. We all do this, right? No, I’m talking about common and latin[ized] names that define and differentiate individual plant species. Although, be aware, “sometimes two or more plants share the same name, or an individual plant may be known by several different names…”

International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN)

To make plant names more universal and precise this is the system used by plant professionals and scientists. The code is based on a two-name system developed by famous botanist Linnaeus(LINK – who’s Linnaeus and why should you care – gv article). 

  • Plants are grouped by botanical similarities such as foliage and/or flower form.
  • The first name is a genus name “a principal taxonomic category that ranks above species and below family and is denoted by a capitalized Latin name” i.e. Family > Genus > Species. Example: In the case of the common wildflower Black-eyed Susan  one would note the Family as Asteraceae, the Aster family while it’s Genus is Rudbeckia, a coneflower, with a specific name, Rudbeckia hirta – black-eyed Susan.
  • The genus name is the first name of a specific plant type or species which helps break up the larger plant family into groups.
  • The species name “narrows down to the identity to a specific species of plant. For example, “the common name maple refers to a genus of plants known botanically as Acer. The sugar maple is a species within the genus Acer known botanically as saccharum. Thus, the botanical name for sugar maple is Acer saccharum.”

Common Names

Common names are just that, the identification we casually apply in communications with others. My husband bought me roses on Mother’s day. Or, I’m going to plant carrots this year. Or, Look at those beautiful Cherry trees. Sure, these common names can be more specific but they are not the botanical – binomial – names as per the ICBN.

What About Plant Varieties? –

It is common for new variations of a species to be produced. When this happens it is called a cultivar, or cultivated variety. In these cases two forms of identification are accepted

  • Genus species ‘Variety’ or
  • Genus species cv. ‘Variety’

Conclusion – Learning and using ICBN botanical plant names can be daunting, but like learning a new language, especially a latin based language, surprising connections and understanding happens. Learning the various plant families > Genus > Species > Varieties also helps plan, organize, and maintain landscapes as there will be a greater understanding of plant needs.

Link Sources,is%20unique%20to%20each%20species.

Version: Rough Draft 1.0 10/5/2020