A Note on Namesby Judy Gibson
Saffron crocus, Crocus
(This picture bears no relation whatsoever to the topic treated below but
Michel and I love it)
Many cultures have a long history of knowledge of the natural
world around them, including the identification and uses of
plants. And each culture names plants in its own language.
common names are quite stable and useful in their place of
origin, but are not of much use elsewhere. In other places the
same plant might have a different common name, or the same name
might apply to a different plant.
In order to organize the plant kingdom according to the
relationships between plants, and to provide a stable and
universal set of names, botanists use a system called Binomial
Nomenclature. This was first developed by Linnaeus in the 1750's,
and the hierarchical system of classification he applied to all
the known organisms of the plant (and animal) kingdoms is the
basis for the organization used today. The names of plants may be
changed as their relationships become better understood, but name
changes can be tracked down so it is possible to know if two
different names refer to the same plant.
Each species of plant is given a two-word name (a "binomial") in
Latin. The first word, a noun, is the name of the genus the
plant belongs to. The second word (called the "specific
epithet"), often an adjective, distinguishes the species from the
others in the genus. Under the rules of nomenclature, the same
binomial cannot be used twice; that is, no plant may have the
same name as any other plant. Sometimes it happens, however, that
two people unknowingly use the same name (though in the end, only
one of them will be allowed to stand). To make it unambiguous
which name one is referring to, botanists add the name of the
author to the name of the plant. In nonscientific works the name
of the author is usually not needed.
So the scientific name of the onion is Allium cepa L. The "L."
is for Linnaeus, who named it. Garlic is Allium sativum L. You
can see that they are related, because they are in the same genus,
Allium. Onions, garlic, shallots, and leeks, both wild and
cultivated, are all in the same genus.
The singular and the plural of the word "species" are the same
(just like "series"), but the abbreviations are different--sp.
and spp., respectively. If you can tell that a plant is in the
genus Allium, but you don't know which one it is, you can call it
Allium species (or "Allium sp.") If you are referring to several
different members of the genus, you can call them Allium species
(or "Allium spp.").
A species might have different types that have developed
naturally in the wild (called subspecies or varieties) or that
have been developed in cultivation (called cultivars). The name
of the variety can be added to the binomial, with the
abbreviation "var." or "ssp." or "cv." as the case may be. (Or
for cultivars, simply appended in single quotes.) For example,
there is a wild onion in the Mojave desert called Allium
fimbriatum var. mohavense .
The genus name is capitalized and all the others are lower case.
You will still occasionally see the specific epithet capitalized
if it is a person's name, but this custom, though still
permitted, is no longer generally followed. The Latin portion of
scientific names--that is, the two or three Latin words, but not
the author or the abbreviations "var.", etc.-- should be
itialicized if in print, or underlined if handwritten. However,
the constraints of email communication have forced botanists to
write plant names in the same type as the rest of their message,
and this seems to cause no confusion whatever.
Just as closely related species are grouped together into the
same genus, related genera are grouped into families, families
into orders, and so on. When people say two plants are "closely
related" they usually mean they're in the same genus, and when
they say "related" they usually mean they're in the same family.
In modern botanical nomenclature the name of a plant family is
formed from the name of a genus in the family plus the suffix
"aceae". This system is called "uniform nomenclature." It
replaced an older system of family names which used a descriptive
term. But some of the older family names were so fiercely
defended by the people who preferred them that these names were
"conserved." So for these eight families it is permitted to use
either the old name or the new name. This cruel circumstance
causes great confusion among non-botanists. Here are the eight
(Formatting note: to get the columns to line up properly, use a
fixed-width font like Courier)
Conserved name Uniform name English name
Palmae Arecaceae Palm
Graminae Poaceae Grass
Umbelliferae Apiaceae Carrot, Parsley
Compositae Asteraceae Sunflower
Cruciferae Brassicaceae Cabbage, Mustard
Leguminosae Fabaceae Pea, Bean
Guttiferae Hypericaceae St.-John's-Wort
Labiatae Lamiaceae Mint
Another source of confusion about plant families is the fact that
different people group things differently. For example, some
taxonomists consider the lily family to be huge and inclusive,
and some split it up into lots of smaller families. So you may
see onions put into the lily family, or the amaryllis family, or
in a family of its own, the onion family. Just remember that no
matter how people organize the families, if you have Allium cepa,
you have an onion. Chop it, saute it, and enjoy!
The best reference in existence for finding plant names and
interesting information about every plant on the planet is The
Plant-Book by D. J. Mabberley. It is published by Cambridge
University Press, 1987. ISBN 0 521 34060 8.
It is a compact dictionary-style reference. You can look up any
plant product and find out what plant it comes from. Most common
names, not only English, are also listed. For every genus it
tells you the family. For every family the identification
characteristics and also notable members of the family and other
intersting facts. A great book! I have a copy at home and one on
my desk at work and I use it every day.
(Photo courtesy of Judy Gibson, from her own plants. Scanning provided
by Devin Ben-Hur)
Back to Plant Names Gateway
Judy Gibson (email@example.com)
San Diego Natural History Museum
San Diego, California
Copyright by Judy Gibson, 1995