• Helen Hartung

A Primer on Botanical Latin

Why bother with fancy Latin names of plants? Understanding botanical nomenclature will make you a better gardener. The names will often tell you what the plant needs and where it is from. Proper names will prevent making mistakes or confusing one plant with another. It’s also easier than you might think.

For example: Suppose you went to a nursery and asked for Dusty Miller. They might say, Which one? There are at least five different plants that are called by that common name. Same goes for Trumpet Vine. There are five different trees that are commonly called cedars, but only one is a real cedar. Or suppose you had a garden in Italy—if you went to a nursery there and asked for a plant by its botanical name, they would know exactly what you meant.

A brief history: our system of designating plants (as well as animals) was systematized by Swedish botanist Linnaeus in the 17th century. He grouped them into categories based on similarity of structure. For instance, roses and apples are all in the same family (Rosaceae), and if you look carefully at their flowers and their fruits, you’ll see that they look alike. Lavender, Mint, Salvia and Plectranthus are all in the same family (Lamiaceae)—you can tell because they all have square stems.

Basically, plants have two names. It’s called binomial nomenclature. Examples are: Camellia japonica, which is the usual camellia, and Camellia sasanqua, which is the more sun-tolerant variety. Or Hydrangea macrophylla, which is the big-leafed, regular hydrangea, and Hydrangea quercifolia, or oak leaf hydrangea. There will often be varietal names after the two main names, such as Camellia japonica ‘Debutante,’ which further specifies the exact variety.

Once you know some of the basic Latin terms, it’s easy to tell some of the plant’s characteristics. Here are some of the common Latin words used in botanical names:

Colors of plants:

albus or alba—white





rubens, ruber—red


Where It Comes From:

japonicus—from Japan

canadensis—from Canada

montanus—from mountains

chilensis—from Chile

Plant Peculiarities:





Form of Leaf:



quercifolius—oak like

Shape of plant:

compactus—compact, dense

arboreus—tree-like contortus—twisted

nanus, nana—dwarf

repens, reptans—creeping

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