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The Importance of Plant Names

June 2, 2010

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Like most gardeners, I find it impossible to read scientific plant names. The names look like jumbled letters, similar to those floating in a bowl of Campbell’s alphabet soup. As frustrating as this is, there’s a good explanation for the use of these complex names.

Carl von Linne (May 23, 1707 – January 10, 1778), known by his pen name Linnaeus, developed the scientific name system called binomial. Still used today, with many changes, Linnaeus’ method is complex in its entirety. Below I will try to explain the basics, the important elements that will help you understand Linnaeus’ reasoning. Most importantly, how it will keep you from making costly mistakes.

A plant’s common name is, without question, easier to read than its scientific names. However, a single plant can have many common names according to different regions or countries. For example, in some areas the Red Maple is referred to as Scarlet or Swamp Maple. Think of the confusion this would cause retailers (or consumers) when placing orders.

To solve this problem Linnaeus created the universal method binomial. This includes two scientific names, both in Latin or Greek, the first being the genus and the second specific epithet.

The genus name indicates that the plant is part of a particular group with similar characteristics.

The specific epithet indicates that the plant is part of a genus with dissimilar characteristics. The specific epithet identifies the plant’s organ, the founder’s name, or something to describe the plant.

Here is an example chart using two spruce trees of the same genus.

Common name          Binomial (scientific name system)

white spruce            (Picea glauca)                        

Picea  is the genus; glauca is the specific epithet which refers to bluish white needles

black spruce            (Picea mariana)

Picea is the genus; mariana is the specific epithet which refers organ:  Maryland, N. America

Although there’s no reason for the average gardener to store scientific plant names in his or her brain (unless they find this fascinating), it is essential to know a plant’s scientific name before ordering from a catalog or nursery especially if you:  1) are ordering from a company in another area; 2) have recently moved to a new region or country; 3) don’t have a photo match to insure that you’ve made the right choice.  Copyright © 2010 Dianne Marie Andre

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