Botanical Latin for dummies

I always get a funny reaction from people when I spout out the botanical Latin name of a plant.  First off, it seems to boggle their mind that I actually know it, and secondly, I think it must make me sound like a complete plant snob to them. 

 In defense, the botanical names are incredibly useful to know.  The “real names” unlock all kinds of information about the plant that can help you select and take care of it.  Plus, the botanical name is a “fingerprint” of sorts, which confirms beyond a doubt the identity of the plant.   

People instead seem comfortable using the “common name”.  The problem with common names comes from them being inconsistent and often a misnomer way of communicating.  For example if someone said, “I want a Japanese Maple. “ That common name would not even begin to help narrow down the myriad of possible choices.  They could be thinking of a 30 foot tree form with red leaves, or a green dwarf weeping specimen that would look great in their rock garden.

 Get comfortable with the botanical name:

 It can be an “aha” moment once you understand the pattern or rule for how the botanical Latin names are constructed.  They are meant to unlock the true characteristics of the plant.  The rules are consistent and governed within the scientific horticulture community.  I can distinctly remember the moment I learned this at one of my classes at Longwood.  It immediately unraveled the naming mystery for me. 

 Here’s how it works:


The first name you see on a plant tag is called the Genus.  This is the equivalent of a car brand name like Honda, or BMW.  So for example, the maple tree Genus is called Acer, a Dogwood tree is called Cornus.  The Genus name gets you closer, but is still very general to the real plant identification.  


The second term in a typical plant name description is called the species.  This is the equivalent of a Honda now being further identified as an Accord.  Or, if you had a BMW the species of your BMW might be 325i.  The species is listed in lower-case.  So for example, our maple tree could now be listed as Acer rubrum (common name is Red Maple).  Now we are getting some useful identification that has distinction.  But wait!   There’s more.


Most of the time you will see a third term called the Cultivar.  The term Cultivar stands for cultivated variety.  This means that someone purposefully identified and cultivated a distinguishing characteristic of the plant that makes it different from the straight Genus and species version.  The cultivar name is listed in single quotation marks.  This is the equivalent of calling our car a Honda Accord LX.  Now you’d clearly know that this specific Honda Accord has the leather seats and the moon roof features because of the LX identification.  So for example, our maple tree could now be called an Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’.  Now we could distinguish this plant gets consistently brilliant orange-red fall color. 

 Get practical

For practical purposes, if I’m shopping for a Red Maple tree, now I would know that I could make a smart and superior choice by selecting an Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’.  The other wonderful reason the botanical Latin name is so practical has to do with Google search terminology.  You can plug in the exact name in the search bar and be assured you get the correct information and images for that particular plant.  If you plant perennials, then you know how confusing it would be without the botanical name.  There are so many cultivars to consider, plus new ones being introduced every year.  Knowing the real name helps keeps it straight. 

So, don’t worry about sounding like a plant snob.  Instead, be smart and savvy by making great informed choices that make gardening interesting and more rewarding.  I hope this has helped you break the botanical Latin plant code.