Flower Show Prep: Latin Names for Plants

Why is this important?
Botanical Latin, taxonomy, or naming is important for gardeners for several reasons, among which are the following:

  1. Our Flower Show. Most immediately we are required according to the Federated rules that all horticultural entries (flowering branches and container plants in bloom) be identified by their botanical names, correctly used when entered in the competition.  See the Schedule (Rules) which is posted on this website. The Schedule outlines the rules for the Horticultural entries as well as some of the correct botanical names.


  1. Specific Plant Identification.   Another reason for knowing a little about Botanical Latin is that common names may differ from person to person and region to region and prevent proper identification and cause confusion as to what plant is being described. Botanical Latin names tell us how the plant fits into the network of plants, what is related to what. If you are looking for a plant in a nursery or from a plant catalogue knowing its botanical name will ensure that you are getting the correct plant and not something totally different or a relative which isn’t the one you thought you were buying.
  1. Shared Cultural Characteristics. A group of closely related genera (plural of genus) often share similar structure and appearance and cultural practices (or care of the plant) generally follow family lines. A common vegetable family which illustrates this is the “nightshade family”, the family Solanaceae, which includes tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. Anyone who gardens these vegetables knows you need to rotate the beds in the garden where any of these are grown with others not in this family, so that diseases which affect these vegetables aren’t repeated from year to year.

Where does this system come from?

In the mid 18th century Carl Linnaeus simplified the way botanists identified a plant using a binomial or two word system, which distinguish one plant in a family from another in that family. The system he devised has been tweaked and continuously updated as relationships of plants are more fully understood. All major botanical journals and institutions abide by the rules and recommendations which have been developed over time for this binomial system. As DNA analysis progresses some plants are re classified from time to time as new relationships are recognized.

What is this system?








We are concerned for the Flower Show with the last two of these: genus and species and possibly a common name, if desired. So a forsythia branch that you have forced you will need to provide its genus and species- Forsythia intermeida or border forsythia. The Genus name is in italics and capitalized. The Species name is also in italics but not capitalized. The common name, non italicized, and lower case.

The Schedule gives a number of possible tree and shrub branches that could be entered giving their botanical names. If you also know the subspecies name, you can provide that as well but the subspecies name must be preceded by ssp for sub-species, var. for variety or cu for cultivar.

Carol and the other Master Gardeners in the group can help you if you can’t find the genus or species for your entry. Most botanical resources will have indexes for common and botanical names and there are several internet sites which can help. These are two such sites.

University of Connecticut Plant Database

USDA Plants Database

Common Names, Identification and Relationships

Identification. The author of “Botany in a Day”gives an example of a berry bush his grandmother called teaberry. He couldn’t find a plant by that name but ultimately identified the plant by a different common name-grouse whortleberry. But he didn’t know how it fit into the botany of berry bushes until he knew its botanical name- Vaccinium scoparium. Blueberries, huckleberries and bilberries are part of the genus of Vaccinium. Now he knows a lot more about the plant and its cultural requirements just from the name and the relationship of other similar plants than he could know from the common name. There are about 450 species of Vaccinium world wideWhile you may not know what species you have encountered, you probably know that a berry on a similar bush is edible and delicious.

Similarly, the Solanceae family or nightshade family, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant, share similar diseases, hence the admonition to rotate the beds, and similar pests, such as the flea beetle. Knowing this, you can better deal with or anticipate similar problems for the members of the genus.

Also when you are planning next spring/summer’s plantings and find a new plant you want to try to find in the nurseries, you need its botanical name to make sure it is the new one with whatever attracts you to it, instead of one of the older cultivars which don’t have it.

Cultural Requirements. The botanical names for the plant you are identifying tells you how it fits into the plant domain, what its closest relatives are and what its cultural needs are going to be. Remember the tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants. These relationships are constantly being re evaluated but if reclassified, the rules and recommendations of the binary system developed by Linnaeus are followed for the new botanical name and we are able to understand the relationship in terms of other members of the newly identified genus.

Summary. This has been a tiny review of Botanical Latin for Gardeners. It is a challenging subject but if you pay attention, there is much to be learned by this binary system. Have fun.

from Sarah Graber