Vivat Linnaeus!

Excerpted from the January 2012 issue of American Nurseryman magazine

I’m not very good with names and I don’t know Latin, so botanical plant names are a challenge for me. I’m surrounded by nursery and landscape designer people who can spout Latin plant names as if it’s their first language. This often forces me to just smile and nod as if I know exactly the plant they are talking about. Usually by the end of the conversation, I have figured out which plant they are talking about…or I smile shyly and ask, “Does that plant have a common name?” If it weren’t for Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature way back in 1753, it could have been so much worse.

Linnaeus’s naming system helps to eliminate confusion. Apparently, there are more than 245 names for the white water lily in the English, Dutch, German and French languages alone. In Linnaeus’s—and now our—world, there’s just one name: Nymphaea alba. If you know a little about the Latin language, the names often (always?) describe features, attributes and colors of a plant, e.g., alba, not too surprisingly, refers to “white.”

You’ll see lots of cool plants at the Yard, Garden & Patio Show, especially in the Remarkable Green Market. Not knowing the Latin names of plants shouldn’t diminish your delight in finding that special plant, but having a greater understanding of how plants are named might make your visit to the show that much more interesting.

Linnaeus arranged species and genera (groups of related species) into a hierarchical system. Species are reproductively isolated populations of organisms. Of course there are exceptions and those exceptions are denoted with an “x” in the name, e.g., Acer rubrum x Acer saccharinum. After Linnaeus, several other classification categories came into use: “Family”, which describes a group of related genera, and “cultivars” for cultivated varieties.

The Latin names for plants should be represented in the following manner:

• The first letter of the genus name is always capitalized, e.g., Abies balsamea (Balsam Fir)
• The first letter of the species name isn’t capitalized
• Both parts of the name are italicized or underlined
• The cultivar name is designated between single quotes and is not italicized, e.g., Abies balsamea ‘Nana’ (Dwarf Balsam Fir)

Knowing how plants are related can help with plant problem diagnostics and infectious disease control. Bacterial fireblight, for example, occurs only on genera in the Rosaceae family. Related genera in the Rosaceae family include Rosa (rose), Malus (apple), Sorbus (mountain ash) and Crataegus (hawthorn), among others.

So don’t be surprised if you find Abies balsamea ‘Nana’ and many other darling conifers for sale in the American Conifer Society booth (#1397); Helleborus x hybridus Winter Jewels™ in Jefferson Nursery’s space in the Remarkable Green Market; Cupressus sempervirens (Italian cypress) in the showcase gardens; and Feijoa sellowiana (pineapple guava) in the “Garden-to-Table” edible garden.

Do you have a favorite botanical name that rolls off your tongue? (Don’t forget Fine Gardening’s plant pronunciation guide if you want to hear how a Latin plant name is pronounced.)