When you hear the name, Echinacea purpurea, do you know what it means? What about purple coneflower? The majority of people will probably only know the latter of the two choices, however, these are actually the exact same plant. While most people think the latin name is an unnecessary foreign concept, it really is quite important.
The purpose of the Latin or botanical name of plants is to provide specific information about the plant that distinguishes it from others. A plant will have one, and only one, Latin name. This same plant, however, may have several common names. This system, called nomenclature, provides a plant with a two-part Latin name, the “genus” and “species”. Within this system, the genus is usually a noun and is always capitalized and the species/epithet is an adjective that describes the noun and is left lower case, both are italicized. For example, all maple trees fall into the genus Acer, but have different characteristics. An Acer palmatum describes a leaf which is shaped like a hand and Acer platanoides means resembling the ‘plane tree’.
There are rare occurrences when a third name is also thrown into the nomenclature system, as if we were not confused enough.
There are several reasons and rules to adding a third name.
A third name is used in the instance that a subspecies or variety is found in nature. An example is the ‘dissectum’ variety of Japenese maple. The scientific name Acer palmatum dissectum is a maple with leaves shaped like a hand in which the leaf is finely dissected. If the subspecies or variety is found naturally, then the third name is left lowercase.
When a ‘cultivar’ is made using different plant characteristics, it also gets a third name. It may contain the name of the developer, location where it was hybridized or given a catch name to grab attention. An example of this is Acer platanoides ‘Emerald Queen’. The cultivar name is capitalized and set off in single quotes.
You do not need to become proficient in Latin in order to be a great gardener, but Latin names can open up a whole new journey into educating yourself in horticulture. You can now impress your friends as well as be able to pinpoint specific characteristics about plants.
Here are a few examples of some Latin epithets often applied to plants we grow in our gardens. (If you see a similar name ending in –a, -us, or –um, it means the same thing)