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The Meaning of Plant Names
by Anne Marie Van Nest
March 25, 2001


Love them or not, botanical names are an internationally recognized identification that allows plants persons to communicate throughout the entire world. With one standard, Corylus avellana 'Contorta' is recognized around the world as being specific to only one plant. Botanical names are unique, unlike popular (or common) names which vary according to their place of origin. Popular names have no rules so one plant could have any number of names (in any language) without any similarity. The Corylus mentioned previously is known as corkscrew hazel in North America, but in Great Britain, where it was discovered, it is known as Harry Lauder's walking stick. The use of botanical names eliminates the confusion of popular names. 
A Swedish naturalist named Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linne) came up with the idea of our modern system of naming plants in 1753. Previous to this date, plants were named without any standardized rules. Often their names contained a series of descriptions that may have extended ten words long. As more and more plants were discovered, Linnaeus realized how impractical this system was becoming. Linnaeus championed for a binomial (two word) naming system to identify plants. He identified the first word as a broad grouping of related plants (called genera) and the second word which narrowed down the group and was more specific to the plant (called species). Each plant in the binomial system of nomenclature must have a unique name. This system served Linnaeus well 250 years ago when the know plant world was relatively small (about 10,000) and is still very effective now that there are about 250,000 different types of flowering plants. The system was (is) so good that it has been adopted for all know organisms (including animals). 
During the eighteenth century, when Linnaeus was studying, comparing, and writing his 180 books on plants or animals, Latin was the most widely used language of scientific scholars. Hence plants at the time were named using middle ages and renaissance based Latin. Many other languages can be found among the origins of plant names too. Next to Latin, the Greek language has had the most influence, followed by French and some Italian language derivatives to form plant names. Many other plant names were formed in honour of a person or place. Consequently anyone today trying to translate botanical names into classical Roman Latin usually finds it a difficult task. 
The origin of plant names is a fascinating study of geography, history and culture. The botanical name for Venus fly trap is "Dionaea" which is one of the Greek words for Venus. "Acer" is the botanical name for maple trees. This word in Latin means sharp and refers to the hardness of the wood. The early Romans used this hard wood for spear handles. The beautiful magnolia was named after Pierre Magnol, (1638-1715) a professor of botany and director of the botanical garden in Montpellier, France. Monsieur Magnol is fortunate to have his name forever immortalized on this treasured group of trees and shrubs. 
To help with identification and to understand the relationships between plants, broad groups called "families" have been formed. These related genera are grouped together in a family designated by the suffix "aceae" Thus all magnolia are in the family called Magnoliaceae, but this family also contains closely related plants such as the tulip tree. There are about 300 different families for flowering plants. Some have just one member such as Ginkgoaceae (Ginkgo biloba) while others such as Asteraceae are very large and have 1,300 different genera and 21,000 species. 
Why is it necessary to use hard-to-remember botanical names when common names will suffice? Ask for a coneflower at your local nursery and watch for the puzzled response. Coneflower could be the popular name for more than four different genera of plants. This does not even count the numerous species called coneflower in each of those genera. The Reader's Digest A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants has a long confusing list which includes two common names for the same coneflower plant. Both drooping coneflower and gray-head coneflower are known as Ratibida pinnata. Prairie coneflower is listed as a more general name for the entire genus of Ratibida. To confuse matters more the Encyclopaedia lists pink coneflower as Echinacea pallida, but rose coneflower is an entirely different genus and species (Isopogon dubius). Sweet coneflower is another new genus (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), while the popular purple coneflower is still another different genus (Echinacea purpurea). Also listed is Tennessee coneflower (Echinaceae tennesseensis) and just plain coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata). The common name coneflower is not the worst case of confusing names. The name "daisy" is used for an astounding eighteen different genera in the Reader's Digest Encyclopaedia. Using the botanical name is a consistent, reliable identification for a specific plant. The only hazard of using botanical names is the small chance that a plant has changed its name.
Who makes the official decision about what a plant will be called? A group of international experts have put together the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature to govern how plants are named. This "code" is revised about every ten years (or so) as new information and issues are brought to the forefront. 
Plants have their names changed for several reasons. The people who make these decisions are plant taxonomists. They have a goal to create a uniform, practical, and stable system of naming plants that is accepted and used by a very diverse group of people. Their ultimate goal is to have scientific plant names used by gardeners, people who grow the plants, those that create garden designs, promotional and marketing companies, botanical gardens staff, and those that write about gardening. Each of these groups of people have a different degree of acceptance for the use of scientific names. This is especially true for those names that are hard work to remember. Most everyone understands the need for standardized plant names, yet there is not universal acceptance of botanical names. The difficulty in getting everyone to use scientific names as their standard lies with the plain fact that common names are much easier to use.
There are four main reasons that plant names are changed. The first is the result of new historical information that confirms an earlier reference to a plant name that takes precedence. This results in a name change if the earlier published name is deemed valid. A misidentification of a plant might also result in a name change. Other name changes may be the result of changes in taxonomic philosophies. This is the result of the battle that ensues when the "splitters" face-off against the "lumpers". The most frequent reason that plant names are changed is the result of a better understanding of plants themselves. More intensive research and field work often compares larger pools of plants than was done historically. This might lead to name changes. The use of increasingly sophisticated molecular technology (including electron microscopes) has shed light on new plant relationships. Future DNA testing is likely to result in even more shuffling. The biggest name change that occurred recently was the disruption of the Chrysanthemum genus. Some former Chrysanthemums where changed into Rhodanthemum, Leucanthemum and Tanacetum
The next time a tongue twister plant name presents itself, think about the benefits of that one standard name spoken around the world.


Anne Marie Van Nest is an Instructor at
Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens & School of Horticulture

Email: vannest@computan.on.ca
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