31 January 2014

Friday Five: Botanical Latin - The Naming of plants

The most common botanical Latin that most of us will come across are the genus and species names of plants, otherwise known as binomial nomenclature. An example of this binomial nomenclature being Hedera helix, which is commonly known as english ivy. The genus should always have an initial capital and the species should always be lowercase; both parts should be in italics.

The formation of plant names is very interesting. Plants can be named for many reasons including:
  • Their physical characteristics, for example grandiflora meaning 'with large flowers'.
  • Their origin, for example sinensis relating to plants of Chinese origin.
  • Being named after people. This may be the person that found the plant, but plants are often named in honour of a respected person. An example being Strelitzia reginae, commonly known as the Bird of Paradise, which Francis Masson named in honour of Queen Charlotte
When plants are given their scientific name, the name must follow the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. This is an international attempt to ensure that each species has only one scientific name. Where a species is found to have more than one name, the official name falls back to he earliest scientific name.

The starting date starting date for the first publication of taxon descriptions is 1 May 1753, which is the publication of Species Plantarum by Carl Linnaeus. But this wasn't enforced until the Vienna Rules were introduced in 1905. There have been a series of updates to the code over the years, with the most recent being the Melbourne Code of July 2011 (see bonus below).

To the frustration of many people, as the understanding of plants has developed, scientific names of plants have changed! Sometimes this is purely down to botanists realising that a plant has been misidentified. But increasingly this reclassification is due to DNA research, which allows us to objectively assign the species to the correct taxonomic rank. We can only hope that DNA continues to be the best way for taxonomists to name plants and that the name changes will settle down over time as the DNA of more plants is checked.

Until a couple of years ago the description of newly discovered plants had to be written in Latin. In 2012 this was changed and now English can be used to describe plants, which could mean that plants will receive descriptions much quicker. In addition online descriptions will be recognised, rather than just descriptions in print. Both of these changes mean that the conservation of endangered plants could be put in to action much quicker. The genus and species name will remain in Latin. For more, see this short video about the change:

Harrison, L. (2012) RHS Latin for Gardeners, London, Mitchell Beazley
International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2014. International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Code_of_Nomenclature_for_algae,_fungi,_and_plants. [Accessed 31 January 2014].


  1. Ah Latin, the once-romance language, now the language of plant and animal specification and medical terminology! This is very interesting, thanks for sharing!

    1. No problem, glad you liked it. I find Latin for naming plants and animals quite a romantic usage - I think it's quite exotic when studying plants have Latin intertwined with the topic!

  2. I really like this article. You covered all the bases on explaining why Latin is used in science. My interest in biology prompted 2 years of Latin study in my 8th and 9th grades. I loved everything about it!

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment, Dawn. It's really interesting to know that's how your interest came about. I do find it quite exotic that Latin is used for botanical names :)


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