Reading and Writing Plant Names

By Kit Knotts

Because the Internet has revolutionized communication, it has become more important than ever to take advantage of some standard tools for exchanging information worldwide. Botanical nomenclature is the international language of plants and at our disposal.

Because Latin or Latinized forms of words are used for much of the naming of plants, using scientific names may seem a little artificial or even intimidating at first. Use of common names often limits understanding to a particular region while use of botanical names is international. Once you become familiar with some basic rules, reading and writing plant names can be easy. Pronouncing them is a whole other subject.

As Piers Trehane has said, taxonomy is just a matter of organizing things into groups. Nomenclature gives those groups names. The naming of plants is governed by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) for wild plants and by the International Code of Nomenclature For Cultivated Plants (ICNCP) for plants that have been created or influenced by man.

Latin and/or Latin form is required for naming wild plants and the use of modern languages is required for cultivated plants. Binomial nomenclature of species, invented by Linnaeus and used today, means two names, one at the rank of genus and another at the rank of species. Ranks are Kingdom, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. These can be further broken into subfamily, tribe, subtribe, subgenus, section, subsection, series, subseries, subspecies, variety, subvariety, and forma.

In a scientific name, the genus (plural is "genera", adjective is "generic") name comes first and will always be in Latin or Latin form. It will sometimes be abbreviated, especially after it has already been
written in full once. The species (adjective is "specific") epithet (the one which pertains to the rank of species; remember that the full species name is a binomial) gives us our first clue to what the plant is. If the
second name looks like Latin, it is most likely a wild plant that has been named as a species.

For wild plants, the genus name always begins with a capital letter, the species with a lower case letter and they are often written in italics.
  Nymphaea alba
N. alba
In the case of cultivated plants, the genus will begin with a capital letter and often be italicized. The second name (correctly the epithet) will be enclosed in single quotation marks and have the first letter capitalized.
  Nymphaea 'Afterglow'
For many years it was the custom to give cultivars Latinized names. This is no longer allowed for new cultivars, but many older cultivars were originally furnished with Latin epithets and many such names have been legitimately retained as cultivar epithets.
When a cultivar is a selection or form of a species, the name may look like this.
  Nymphaea gigantea 'Albert de Lestang'
With waterlilies we also have subgenera, which can tell us a lot about where and when they bloom. These are Latin names, begin with a capital letter and will often be italicized.
  Nymphaea (subgenus Brachyceras) ampla

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