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Botany 101: Calling All Plants

Binomial nomenclature. Ahh, what a lovely phrase! Binomial nomenclature. It rolls off the tongue so elegantly. Binomial nomenclature. And saying it makes ya sound smart and stuff. Nomenclature is one of the things about horticulture that I love geeking out on. 🙂 Plant ID was one of my first horticultural classes, and it was the first one I really, really took a liking to.

What is nomenclature, you ask? Thanks for asking! Well, nomenclature means a system for naming. Think nombre (name in Spanish), nom de plume (pen name in French), misnomer (misnamed in English). Binomial means “two names” (there’s that “nom” again). So basically, it means a system of organizing things by using two names. Just like with critters (Homo sapiens, for example), plants have two names as a way of sorting them. We see it all the time. Rosa banksiae, Echeveria imbricata, etc. But then we also see names like “Wendy’s Wish” or “County Park Red”. What does all this mean, to the plant-naming uninitiated?

The first name is the genus, or generic epithet. The genus is always capitalized, often italicized because it is not English. Second name is the species/specific epithet. The species is always lowercase, and would also be italicized. When I first started studying plants, I was familiar with the terms “specific” and “generic”, but in seemingly different contexts. When you think about it, though, the context is actually pretty much the same. We use generic in general English to mean run-of-the-mill. A generic can of soup. It’s just a can of soup. Who cares who made it. It’s generic. It’s soup. So it is with plant names: generic means, well, any of that type of plant. The generic term for plum trees is Prunus. Any plum. Who cares what kind, it’s a plum. There are many types of plums, but they all come from the Prunus genus.

Prunus cerasifera

Colloquially, we use specific to mean something particular, distinctive. Like with our can of generic soup, the specific is what piques our interest. Split Pea. Ahh, now it’s telling us something more about that soup. That specific kind of soup. So it is with plant names. Prunus cerasifera (cherry-bearing) is distinguishing itself from Prunus caroliniana (guess where that one is native to.)

Prunus caroliniana

Incidentally, that second plum tree is known as Carolina Cherry Laurel, though it is not a laurel (Laurus genus). But its leaves look like one.

That brings us to the problem of common names for plants. So often, the common name of a plant is used for more than one plant! Or can be generally misleading, as with that Cherry Laurel. Names can vary regionally, and certainly within languages, so having a botanical naming system is key to a common understanding of a plant. Black Eyed Susan is a great example. To some, it’s a daisy.

Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

To others, it’s a vine.

Black Eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata)

Who’s right? Everyone. See the problem? But by using the botanical name, you can know if you’re on the same page.

I think my favorite part about nomenclature is the significance of the words. These words, and pieces of words, have meanings. They often tell you something about a plant. Even if you don’t know the plant you can often glean a bit of knowledge about it just from its name. I’ve always been a nerd for languages, particularly in terms of comparison and cohesion between languages. Cognates, they’re called. I could do a whole ongoing blog on that crack. Having taken Spanish in high school actually helps a lot with comprehending some botanical names, since both languages have Latin roots.

Acanthus mollis

So, back to botanical names having meanings. Japonica means Japanese, for example. Or take Acanthus (Bears Breech): “ac” means sharp (acute angles), “anthus” means flower. Sharp flower? Yup. At least, visually if not to the touch. There are variations of a word that will all have the same meaning, for example “flower” being represented by anthum/anther/anthus/antherium, or “leaves” being represented by phylla/phyllum/phyllo, etc. Oh! And get this: often a common word comes from a botanical root. Take oaks. The genus is Quercus. Note that “querc” is not too far a stretch from “cork”, and corks come from oaks. Whoa! I mean, aren’t you as excited about learning more as I am now?!?! Don’t even get me started! Too late. 🙂 Prunus reminds you of something, too, right? (The genus actually includes all the stonefruits, like peaches and apricots, not just the plums.)

When it comes to cross-breeding plants, you generally can only cross at the specific level and not the generic level. Meaning, you can cross two species of plums, but you can’t cross a plum with an orange. There are exceptions in certain genera (plural for genus), but not so many. When you see an unitalicized part of a name, that’s what has occurred. Cross two varieties Thunbergia alata (say, a yellow and an orange flowering parentage), and you might get seedlings that exhibit both colors or a modification of the two. You could name it Thunbergia alata ‘boZannical Blast’ for example. The quoted part of the name indicates that it is an intentional human-guided crossing of the two plants.

In nature, plants will create their own varieties. California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) vary in color from orange in the Sierras to cream at the coast. You’d write that as Eschscholzia californica var. maritima, for example, with “var.” meaning a particular natural variety of that species (in this case the coastal, or maritime, variety). But people make variations happen. We cross breed and hybridize plants out the wazoo. In this case, we call it a cultivar, as in cultivated variety. Written as Eschscholzia californica cv. boZannical Blast, or Eschscholzia californica ‘boZannical Blast’, with single quotes. Either style is correct, and is a matter of preference to the scribe. Another equally valid naming is to name the cultivar with both parents’ name. Red Cherry X White Cherry. The “X” is pronounced “cross” (as in, crossed with). This naming is of most interest to other botanically-minded people who might want to know how you came up with your cool unique plant, but is otherwise a cumbersome naming method.

I’m sure I’ll have more exciting botanical knowledge to impart in the future. 🙂 Don’t fret that this foray into plant geekery is coming to a close. Anybody have any plant names they are curious about? Any favorite plant names?

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One response to “Botany 101: Calling All Plants

  1. sounds like you had a good teacher!

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