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Let's Learn About Botanical Names for Plants

By dave
September 29, 2011

Genera, species, cultivars, synonyms, common names... what does it all mean? If this subject has you a little confused, allow me to cut through the confusion and show you the light.

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Name: Hetty
Sunny Naples, Florida (Zone 10a)
Plumerias Photo Contest Winner: 2015 Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Database Moderator
Forum moderator Region: Florida Cat Lover Garden Sages Cactus and Succulents Tropicals
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Dutchlady1
Sep 28, 2011 7:11 PM CST
Having worked with plant databases now for the past three years, I am a stickler for the correct names. And really, it is not so hard to learn!
Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
Charter ATP Member Region: Texas Master Gardener: Texas Permaculture Raises cows I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database!
Garden Ideas: Master Level Beekeeper Garden Sages Avid Green Pages Reviewer Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Plant Identifier
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dave
Sep 28, 2011 7:12 PM CST

Garden.org Admin

I agree
Name: Hetty
Sunny Naples, Florida (Zone 10a)
Plumerias Photo Contest Winner: 2015 Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Database Moderator
Forum moderator Region: Florida Cat Lover Garden Sages Cactus and Succulents Tropicals
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Dutchlady1
Sep 28, 2011 7:13 PM CST
I have come to rely heavily on ThePlantList.org for reference. Very user-friendly!
Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
Charter ATP Member Region: Texas Master Gardener: Texas Permaculture Raises cows I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database!
Garden Ideas: Master Level Beekeeper Garden Sages Avid Green Pages Reviewer Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Plant Identifier
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dave
Sep 28, 2011 7:17 PM CST

Garden.org Admin

Yes, that's a good site with great information.
Name: josephine
Arlington, Texas (Zone 8a)
Hi Everybody!! Let us talk native.
Native Plants and Wildflowers Organic Gardener Butterflies Garden Ideas: Master Level Forum moderator I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database!
I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member Plant Identifier Birds Cat Lover Xeriscape
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frostweed
Sep 28, 2011 8:02 PM CST
Thank you Dave, for a very nice and concise article, what would we do without botanical names?
We would be totally confused for sure. Hurray!
Wildflowers are the Smiles of Nature.
Gardening with Texas Native Plants and Wildflowers.
Name: June or Nancy-June o
Dover AFB, Delaware (Zone 7a)
Charter ATP Member I sent a postcard to Randy! Garden Art Roses Region: United States of America Container Gardener
Tropicals Lover of wildlife (Black bear badge) Hummingbirder Birds Orchids Region: Texas
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JuneBug
Sep 28, 2011 8:52 PM CST
I agree
Name: Linda
Medina Co., TX (Zone 8a)
Charter ATP Member Salvias Herbs Bluebonnets Native Plants and Wildflowers Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge)
Forum moderator Purslane Hummingbirder Cat Lover Butterflies Birds
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LindaTX8
Sep 28, 2011 10:12 PM CST
Sometimes it seems that the International Botanical Congress just changes the botanical names just to give people a hard time. I mean, I know there are valid reason sometimes, but I keep thinking...suppose they just decide one day to change a botanical name for no particular reason. I have plant books with many of the botanical names in them that aren't valid anymore. And many times I don't even know they've been changed. Some of those botanical names have changed more than once since the books were published.
I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority. E. B.White
Integrity can never be taken. It can only be given, and I wasn't going to give it up to these people. Gary Mowad
Name: Lynn
Dallas, OR (Zone 8b)
Charter ATP Member Garden Sages I helped plan and beta test the plant database. I helped beta test the Garden Planting Calendar I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Plant Database Moderator
Forum moderator I helped beta test the first seed swap Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Plant and/or Seed Trader Garden Ideas: Master Level Sempervivums
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valleylynn
Sep 28, 2011 10:16 PM CST
I can't believe it was just 2 years ago I started learning about botanical names. I am so thankful to so many people here and at Cubits for teaching me so much.
And now here is your article Dave that makes it even easier to understand.
Thank you for a great article.
Name: Chris
Ripon, Wisconsin
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Garden Sages Forum moderator Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Database Moderator
Seller of Garden Stuff I sent a postcard to Randy! Sempervivums Sedums Region: Wisconsin Hosted a Not-A-Raffle-Raffle
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goldfinch4
Sep 29, 2011 12:47 AM CST
Great information Dave! Thanks!
Cubits Store: The Sempervivum Patch - plants, containers, accessories!
Also stop by Timber Treasures and Garden Buddies on Cubits
Name: Juli
(Zone 5b)
Region: United States of America Charter ATP Member Cottage Gardener Daylilies Garden Photography Enjoys or suffers cold winters
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daylily
Sep 29, 2011 3:42 AM CST
A special thanks to Dave for this. I have been growing plants for a long time, but never understood the genus, species thing.

It might be simple to some, but not to all of us.

Dave patiently explained it in a tree-mail to me a few weeks back.

This article spells it out even more clearly!

I tip my hat to you.
Name: Allison
NJ (Zone 6a)
Forum moderator Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Hummingbirder Region: New Jersey Dog Lover
Seed Starter Container Gardener Garden Ideas: Level 1
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Onewish1
Sep 29, 2011 4:54 AM CST
good job Dave!
Name: josephine
Arlington, Texas (Zone 8a)
Hi Everybody!! Let us talk native.
Native Plants and Wildflowers Organic Gardener Butterflies Garden Ideas: Master Level Forum moderator I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database!
I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member Plant Identifier Birds Cat Lover Xeriscape
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frostweed
Sep 29, 2011 6:20 AM CST
I think that they should publish a book or list of changes when that happens, because as Linda said it can be confusing. Smiling
Wildflowers are the Smiles of Nature.
Gardening with Texas Native Plants and Wildflowers.
Name: Vicki
North Carolina
Forum moderator Charter ATP Member I helped beta test the Garden Planting Calendar I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I sent a postcard to Randy! Region: United States of America
Purslane Garden Art Garden Ideas: Master Level Region: North Carolina Celebrating Gardening: 2015
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vic
Sep 29, 2011 6:37 AM CST
Very good article Dave, thank you.

I like your descriptions such as all mints in the box and then break out from there.


Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
Charter ATP Member Region: Texas Master Gardener: Texas Permaculture Raises cows I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database!
Garden Ideas: Master Level Beekeeper Garden Sages Avid Green Pages Reviewer Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Plant Identifier
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dave
Sep 29, 2011 6:41 AM CST

Garden.org Admin

I'm glad you all liked it, thank you.

Josephine, they do indeed publish their changes following their meetings. And when a name is changed, the old usually remains as a synonym.
Name: josephine
Arlington, Texas (Zone 8a)
Hi Everybody!! Let us talk native.
Native Plants and Wildflowers Organic Gardener Butterflies Garden Ideas: Master Level Forum moderator I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database!
I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member Plant Identifier Birds Cat Lover Xeriscape
Image
frostweed
Sep 29, 2011 7:08 AM CST
Great! but how do we find out about the changes, is there a particular site to go to?
Wildflowers are the Smiles of Nature.
Gardening with Texas Native Plants and Wildflowers.
Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
Charter ATP Member Region: Texas Master Gardener: Texas Permaculture Raises cows I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database!
Garden Ideas: Master Level Beekeeper Garden Sages Avid Green Pages Reviewer Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Plant Identifier
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dave
Sep 29, 2011 7:30 AM CST

Garden.org Admin

That's a good question. I don't think there is a definitive site that lists out the changes in an easy to digest format.
Name: Hetty
Sunny Naples, Florida (Zone 10a)
Plumerias Photo Contest Winner: 2015 Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Database Moderator
Forum moderator Region: Florida Cat Lover Garden Sages Cactus and Succulents Tropicals
Image
Dutchlady1
Sep 29, 2011 7:43 AM CST
The Plant List has a 'scale' of how they rate the reliability of a name with one, two or three stars. It's a start.
Name: Lin
Florida (Zone 9b)
Region: United States of America Morning Glories Region: Florida Houseplants Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database!
Garden Procrastinator Birds Butterflies Bee Lover Hummingbirder Container Gardener
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plantladylin
Sep 29, 2011 7:47 AM CST
Dave: Wonderful article! We need a special section on the ATP Front Page for informational "stickies" like this.
~ Eat, Sleep .... Play in the dirt ~
Name: Rebecca Gardner
Gold Beach, Oregon (Zone 9a)
Charter ATP Member Garden Ideas: Level 2
rebeccag
Sep 29, 2011 10:15 AM CST
I like the names that describe and when you learn a few, then it is easier to learn the botanical names. I would like a list of the common ones, for exampe I think its lutea for yellow, lepto for thin, etc. Basically a lot of them are describing the plant in terms of color, seed shape, leaf shape, etc. Some names like leptospermum basically mean "thin seed". I find that intersting, this beautiful shrub, evergreen with awesome flowers and the best they could do was "thin seed".

I have found it fun to learn a few of them and so many are the color.

Great article, I learned a lot in a fun way.

I hate trying to learn the new names, I heard that a lot of them changed due to dna testing and finding they were really from a different source than originally thought.
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Sep 29, 2011 6:24 PM CST
I vote for the binomial names over common names, in any kind of seed or plant trading activity.

I'm holding a collection of donated seeds, and often something will be contrbuted with a one-word or two-word common name. In order to give the seeds away intelligently, I like to know things like "annual or perennial" and hardiness zone, and whether it's a flower or a shrub or tree.

However, for most common names, a short search will find dozens or hundreds of species, many hundred cultivars, and often as many as 5-6 different genra!

When I know who who contributed the seed, I ask gently if they have any more details for the name, or a description that might narrow it down some. However, one canny gardener warned me that many people would stop contributing if asked "for that much detail".

And one person made it very clear that she didn't care about names, to her the only improtant thing was that she liked how it looks.

It's true that not everyone is in love with details and fussy precision.

Personally, I wish there were a CSI or NCIS for plants that would do plant DNA tests and tell me exact species, cultivar, parent strains for recent hybrids, and which hillside that exact seed germinated on! But I doubt that would give any actual advantage to most normal, sane gardeners.

On the other hand, there is some advantage to knowing whether a traded seed is an annual flower or a 30 foot tree before you plant it!

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