Officinale….officinalis….vulgaris….purpurea….canadensis….nigra….have you ever wondered about the meanings behind the botanical names? Often a mix of Latin, Greek and other languages, what is the purpose of such strange names?
Botanical Naming History
Botanical names, known also as scientific names and Latin names, are a binomial naming system that was developed by Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus in the 1700’s. In his observations of plants, he discovered a natural order to the flowers, leaves and fruits of many plants and started to group them accordingly. He gave them a ‘first’ and ‘last’ name, similar to our names; however, in botanical nomenclature, they are switched around. The botanical last name is known as the genus and the botanical first name is known as the species.
Genus names are always capitalized while species names are always lower case. An example of this would be Echinacea purpurea.
Often there may be several types of the same plant and we differentiate them by their species names. For example, there are several species of Echinacea including purpurea, angustifolia, paradoxa and pallida. When listing species names, it is proper to list the genus name first, i.e., Echinacea purpurea. However, if listing several in a row as I just did, instead of repeating the genus name each time, it is acceptable to abbreviate the genus with the first letter like this:
Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia, E. paradoxa and E. pallida after you have written out the genus name for the first species.
Why We Use Botanical Names
Whether you are new to herbalism or you’ve been studying it for awhile, you may wonder why we bother with using the botanical names. It’s hard enough remembering common names, even when they are easy to say such as “purple coneflower” as a generic name for Echinacea spp.
There are a few reasons why it’s important to learn the botanical names. One is that there may be several different species of a plant that share a genus name. Sometimes they are interchangeable such as the species of Echinacea but sometimes, they may have different uses, or only one plant may be used medicinally such as Raspberry (Rubus idaeus, R. occidentalis) and Blackberry (Rubus villosus, R. fruticosus). While both Red Raspberry and Blackberry are used medicinally, they have different uses. Another example is Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)and Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). While T. parthenium is a commonly used, safe medicinal herb, T. vulgare is stronger and can be quite purgative when used in medium to large doses.
Another reason is that more than one plant may be known by the same common name. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is also commonly called Motherwort and Mayweed, the common name of two other herbs: Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) and Mayweed (Anthemis cotula). Common names may also vary region by region, making it hard for outsiders to understand the plants being referred to.
Making Sense of Botanical Names
It’s easy to see why it’s important and useful to learn botanical names but sometimes the names are so crazy, it’s hard to remember them. Fortunately, a lot of species names are named after a characteristic of the plant such as the location the plant is native to, if it was a traditional plant found in pharmacopeias, plant coloration or the way the plant grows.
Traditionally used plants
Plants that were commonly used or listed in pharmacopeias often had species names such as:
officinale / officinalis – official plant listed in pharmacopeias
vulgare / vulgaris – common
Plants named by region
Often plants were named by the region they were located in such as:
americana – America, canadensis – Canada / chinensis – China / japonica – Japan / montana – Montana / occidentalis – Western North America / sylvestris – Woodland / virginiana – Virginia
Plants named by color
Sometimes plants were named because of their coloration, whether it be colorations in their stems, flowers or fruits such as:
alba – white / incana – grey / nigra – black / purpurea – purple / rubra – red
Plants named by their growth habit or shape
Sometimes a description of their shape or growth habit gave plants their species names such as:
angustifolia – narrow-leaved / annua – annual / biennis – biennial / fructicosa/fruticosus – shrubby / glabra – smooth / lanceolata – lance-shaped leaves / reptans – creeping
Resources for more names
Curious about more names? Check out these websites:
The Seed Site http://theseedsite.co.uk/latin.html
Gardening Know How http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/info/latin-plant-names.htm
Want to go deeper? Start learning plant families, these books will help:
Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure For Kids Ages 9 to 99 (book and card deck) by Thomas J. Elpel
Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel