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About Botanical Names

By Ray Allen, Founder of
Purple Flowering Raspberry

First of all, don’t be afraid or put off by Botanical or Latin names.

Once you read through this article, you’ll find you know a lot of them already. For example, Chrysanthemum is the Botanical Name for most daisies. Flower names you know such as Iris, Hibiscus, and Aster are all Botanical Names, too. Moreover, thousands more aren’t exactly the words you know, but you’ll instantly “see” the familiar flower name in the Botanical version.

For example, Lupinus is the first name of all Lupine species, Lilium is obviously the name for lilies, Tulipa, for tulips, and the very familiar Rosa is the first name of all roses. More importantly, there is a very good gardening reason for botanical names. You don’t need to know them all, but unless you have a layman’s understanding of them, you really can’t know your plants very well.

Plants have been classified and named for one very good reason—so we can all clearly distinguish one from another.

Common names are wonderful, and fine in your own garden, but when you order a plant or read about one, you’ll find just using the common name doesn’t work very well. For example, what you call Prairie Daisy in your area, may be called by a completely different common name in a another area. Without a mutually agreed on name, confusion is inevitable

This is why plants have been classified using a common language that can be understood worldwide, Latin. And the reason for classification in the first place is simple—to clearly distinguish one from another. With an estimated number of plants in excess of 270,000 on the planet, it’s obvious some system of nomenclature had to be devised in order to keep them straight.

The scientific or botanical name for wildflowers, as with all plants, is made up of two words.

The first names the group or the “genus” and the second describes a single individual plant within the group, or a “species.” Centuries ago, when the system was devised, Latin was chosen since it is a language understood worldwide. But to somewhat complicate the issue, some genus names are Greek.

Whether Latin or Greek, the genus name (the first name) is always capitalized and is usually a noun. The species (or second) name is not capitalized is usually an adjective. The species name is an adjective since it is used to describe a characteristic that separates the plant from other members of the group. This descriptive name always tells you something about the species. It often refers to a color, the shape of the leaf or flower, or the region the plant comes from. A good example of this naming system can be seen in the botanical name for our famous prairie plant, Purple Coneflower, a tough perennial wildflower with purple petals and a bristly golden cone-shaped center. The botanical name for this plant, now famous as a medicinal, is Echinacea purpurea. “Echinacea, the genus name, means “a bristle”. The species name, “purpurea”, simply means “purple”.

So as you can see, botanical names tell you a lot about the wildflower you’re looking at or looking for. The list below will give you a few really interesting examples, and illustrate many of the main “types” of naming.

By the way, another big issue on this subject with gardeners is pronunciation. Before you worry about it, just forget it, and pronounce the botanical names any way you like. Almost every gardening book ever written gives the same advice. It’s because no one is sure how to pronounce many of the names. What’s more, you’ll find almost every “expert” pronounces them differently. And if the expert is British, almost every pronunciation will be different from how most Americans pronounce the names. Unless you’re making a speech, it just doesn’t make any difference.

The following is a list of recognizable wildflowers with both their Latin or Greek botanical names and their common names with the English derivations. These examples give you a good overview of how to “translate” botanical names.

Botanical Name Genus derivation Species derivation Common Name
Asclepias tuberosa Greek god of healing -Asklepios tuberous roots Butterfly Weed
Asclepias vulgaris Greek god of healing -Asklepios common (vulgar) Common Milkweed
Achillea millefolium Greek warrior-Achilles having many leaves Common Yarrow
Rudbekia hirta For Swiss scientist, Olaf Rudbeck from Greek word for shaggy Black Eyed Susan
Papaver rhoeus From the Greek word for “poppy” red Red Poppy
Centaurea cyanus A medicinal plant from Thessaly blue Cornflower
Cichorium intybus An endive plant bitter Chicory
Lobularia maritime Lobe shaped of the sea-side Sweet Alyssum
Gypsophila elegans Latin for “covered with white” elegant Baby’s Breath
Myosotis sylvatica shaped like a mouse ear belonging to the woods Forget Me Not
Lupinus texensis of a wolf Texas Texas Bluebonnet
Sisyrinchium bellum a kind of bulbous plant beautiful Blue Eyed Grass
Hypericum perforatum From Greek for “plant” perforated St. Johns Wort
Lobelia cardinalis Lobed flowers cardinal-colored Cardinal flower
Lilium canadense Lily Canada Canada Lily
Rosa Carolina Rose The Carolinas Carolina Rose
Helianthus annuus For Greek God of Sun: Helios Annual Sunflower
Rosa officinalis Rose Official (medicinal) Apothecary Rose