Plant names

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Plant names

October 25, 2015 - 15:03

Lots of Koi keepers advocate keeing plants in their ponds.  Those who don't have plants in their landscape around their ponds, so it seemed reasonable to post this very interesting (albeit a bit geeky) article about the taxonomy of plants.  Read the article by clicking on the title or picture.

Are you ever confused when attempting to choose a plant at your favorite garden center?  Should you shop by Latin designation, or by common name?  Some garden centers display according to the plants’ Latin names, some use only the common name.  A loose understanding of both will prove not only easier when shopping, it will enhance your day when you can return home and tell your mate that you spoke Latin that day!

Taxonomy is a system of categorizing living things.  Botany, or the science of plants, has existed for thousands of years, but as the science becomes more sophisticated, classification has grown more complex.

We all have heard of the animal kingdom, the vegetable kingdom, and the mineral kingdom.  Kingdom is at the top of the classification category; here we are addressing the plant kingdom.  There is not a sole method of classifying plants, and the further from the garden we get the more the plant’s name indicates its relationship to other plants, and by extension its place in the plant world rather than the garden.  That is why the gardener should be primarily concerned with the Family, Genus and Species.  However, Variety, Form and Cultivar also matter, particularly if we are searching for a very specific plant, especially a new hybrid. 

Traditionally, plants were classified based on their physical characteristics.  However, since the discovery of DNA, they are now grouped according to their DNA similarities.  Some plants will have more in common with other plants to which they bear no resemblance.  Other plants that look nearly identical to each other will have their DNA bear out that they are completely non-similar.  And with each level of categorization, the more minor the differences become, until you end up with a classification which may apply to a single plant.

But before you begin to tear out your hair, remember that knowledge is power, and the more you know about the specific plant you wish to include in your garden, the more the surety of its success.  So let’s start at my favorite part, the historical basis of the concept of biological classification.  In his 1694 Elements de botanique, the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort began to break down the levels of classification, moving a step away from the top-level genus and offering a distinctive name for a plant.  Linnaeus, the father of modern botany, divided the three kingdoms of Nature (minerals, plants and animals) into classes.  This was reflected in his 1735 edition of Systema Naturae.  It was not until the 19th century that what is now known as Phyla (or divisions) were introduced. 

The order of classification is as follows:

  • Kingdom
  • Phylum (or Division)
  • Class
  • Subclass
  • Superorder
  • Order
  • Family
  • Subfamily
  • Tribe
  • Genus
  • Species
  • Subspecies
  • Variety
  • Form
  • Cultivar

But let’s break that down into an easier, shorter list. 

  • Kingdom
  • Phylum or Division
  • Class
  • Order
  • Family
  • Genus
  • Species


And let’s look at how a rose would be classified:

  • Kingdom: Plantae
  • Division: Magnoliophyta
  • Class: Magnoliopsida
  • Order: Rosales
  • Family: Rosaceae
  • Genus: Rosa


There are more than 100 species, and that grows with every year.

And now we shall narrow it down to the classifications of which a gardener should be most aware.
The Genus is the part of the plant name that is most familiar, most easily recognizable, e.g. Papaver (Poppy), Aguilegia (Columbine) etc.  The name of the Genus should be written with a capital letter.

The species is the level at which an individual plant is defined.  The name may reflect some aspect of the plant, such as the color of the flowers, the size or shape of the leaves, or even the place where it was found.  The Genus and species name are used together to reference only one plant, and the name of the species should be written after the Genus name, in small letters, no capitals.  The Variety is a plant only slightly different from the species plant; the name follows the Genus and species name with var. before the individual variety name.

A form is a plant within a particular species with minor botanical variances, such as flower color or leaf shape.  Its name follows the Genus and species name, with an f. before the individual variety name. 

And now we come to what can be an extremely important part of the gardener’s search for a particular plant.  A  Cultivar is a plant that has arisen either naturally or through deliberate hybridization and is capable of being reproduced to produce more of the same plant.  The name follows the Genus and species name, is written in the language of the person who first described it, and is shown either in single quotation marks as here, Acer rubrum ’Autumn Flame’, or with cv. written in front of the name.  Acer is the Genus, rubrum the species, and ‘Autumn Flame’ the cultivar.

We hope we have demystified the classification system for you.

Article by Liz Forsyth,

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