What's in a Name?

What's in a Name?


Once you’ve mastered the art of deciphering hardiness maps, it’s time to move onto another challenge: understanding botanical and common names for plants.

Picture this scenario: Ever since you were a child, you loved daisies, so you’ve decided you simply must have them in your perennial garden. So you look in a few books for information about daisies. However, in the index you find not just one, but dozens of listings for what you thought was a single plant -- the daisy of your youth! Which of the many daisies -- Shasta daisy, painted daisy, African daisy, Transvaal daisy, English daisy, gloriosa daisy -- is the one you are looking for?

Here’s a case where the science of botany becomes important to gardeners. Botanists classify plants into groups based on certain characteristics. A species is a group of plants that share many characteristics and that interbreed freely; this is the basic unit of plant classification. A genus is a group of related species. The species name is usually an adjective that describes a feature of the plant that distinguishes it from other plants in that genus.

Every plant has a two-word botanical name comprised of a genus name followed by a species name.

Let’s look at a few members of the genus Lobelia and see how their species names distinguish them from others in the group.

  Lobelia cardinalis
The botanical name for the perennial cardinal flower is Lobelia cardinalis. One look at this plant’s brilliant cardinal-red flowers and it’s obvious how it got its common name. Note how the species name, cardinalis, describes this distinguishing characteristic.

Lobelia pendula
The botanical name for the annual trailing lobelia is Lobelia pendula. This plant, with its deep purple, white, or lavender flowers, creates a spectacular display as it cascades over the sides of a hanging basket. Note how the species name, pendula, describes this cascading, or pendulous, habit.

Now, let’s get back to that daisy you’ve been longing for. The perennial plant most like the wild, "he loves me, he loves me not," white-petalled, yellow-centered daisy is the Shasta daisy. Shasta daisies have been bred for larger flowers and are more well-behaved than their wild daisy counterparts, while retaining their coloring. So what is the botanical name for Shasta daisy? It is Leucanthemum maximum. Now you’ll know how to find your beloved daisies. (There are also some Chrysanthemum species that might fit the bill.)

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African daisy (Osteospermum)

Painted daisy (Pyrethrum)

Transvaal daisy (Gerbera)

Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum)

Gloriosa daisy (Rudbeckia)

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