Have you ever wondered how it is that we name our
plants? Most of us are not comfortable with Latin, have
difficulty remembering and pronouncing it, and refer to
our plants by their common names. The problem is that
common names are usually applicable only in a certain
geographical area and so are not accurate universally.
Many times plant labels. catalogs and seed packets
have the Latin names many times they don't. It can all
be somewhat confusing. So let's start with a little
Mankind has studied plants throughout the ages.
Plants were and are essential to survival. Every
civilization had its own system of classification. Then
Columbus and other explorers made discoveries of new
lands and new plants. Chaos ensued and from the
disorganization came Species Plantarum. Written in 1753
by Swedish botanist Carl Von Linne, it ushered the
system two used today of binomial - two names -
nomenclature. Linne, aka Linnaeus, based his system upon
the flowers of the plant, specifically the reproductive
parts of the flower. The language used was Latin,. which
was the scientific language of the day
The Linnaeus system of classification is as follows:
Kingdom, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species,
Subspecies, Variety and Family. The rules for the naming
of these groups are governed by an internationally
accepted Code of Botanical Nomenclature. However, not
every plant falls neatly into every category. There is
often disagreement among botanists as to what should go
Family, genus, species
For those interested in gardening, the family
grouping is usually where the classification process
takes on significance. A family is a group of plants
whose members resemble one another in several respects.
An example would be the lily family' which is composed
of over 200 genra. A Genus - plural genra - is made up
of closely related and similar plant species.
A species is a group of plants that are similar in a
number of ways. They are interfertile and breed true in
most cases, i.e., a ugar maple seed grows into a ugar
When a plant's name is written the first word is the
name of the genus that the plant belongs in. It is
always capitalized. As all plants have two names the
second part is referred to as the specific epithet and
is not capitalized. Both words together are called the
species name of the plant.
Subspecies and variety
A subspecies is a group of plants that is different
from others of the same species in one or more ways and
usually occurs in a certain geographical area. An
example of a subspecies would be that of a plant that
always has white flowers except near a particular
mountain where some of the flowers are pink.
A variety would be the same thing only there is no geographical
distinction. That pink flower would be part of the population
throughout the whole range. Varity is abbreviated var.
And the plant name would be written var. Pink. Both
subspecies and varieties breed true and occur naturally.
Cultivar, a new term only recently invented, is used
to identify groups of plants that do not occur naturally
and are maintained by cultivation. Cultivar is abbreviated
cv or is set off by single quotes, e.g., _____ ______ cv.
So then what does it mean when you use an ‘x'
between two names? The ‘x' indicates that the plant is
a hybrid. Two species within a genus grouping have been
crossed. The genus names remains, followed by the ‘x',
followed by the specific epithet. An example would be
Magnolia x loebneri, a cross between a Magnolia and a
This spring I purchased a packet of seeds labeled
cardinal climber Cypress Vine annual vine. I planted
them, hoping that is would be a Cypress Vine, Ipomoea
quamoclit. As the seeds germinated, it became apparent
what I had was Cardinal Climber Ipomoea xmultifida. Both
plants are similar. Ipomoea quamocilt is one of the
parents of Ipomoea x multifida. While I still have red tubular
flowers for the hummingbirds, I would have like the
other foliage. Proper nomenclature would have been
helpful in helping me before I planted them. It does
make a difference.