KNOW YOUR LINGO
Many people are familiar with the common names of plants but few are comfortable with the botanical names that tend to originate from Latin or Greek. These botanical names can be more difficult to remember and understand than common names, but they do tend to be very useful in the world of gardening.
While one plant can have multiple common names that may change depending on the language, there is only one botanical name that is universal throughout the world. What better way to look up care information on your favorite plant or to hunt down a new addition at the nursery.
These botanical names do not need to be intimidating or confusing. Usually these names become easier to remember with a few key translations of commonly used terms which tend to be a descriptor of the plant for which it is named.
There are numerous books on botanical names and lingo which you may find helpful, such as Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn or The Firefly Dictionary of Plant Names: Common or Botanical by Harold Bagust. They may be helpful to shed some light on the mysterious world of plant names. The following are a few common botanical terms that are used frequently in many plant botanical names.
Acutifolius – This can be broken into two parts. Acuti means pointed and folius means leaf. Therefore acutifolius in Cotoneaster acutifolius (Peking Cotoneaster) means “pointed leaf”.
Alba – A plant that contains the word alba, albus, or album will have a feature, such as a flower, that is white in color. For example, Chelone obliqua ‘Alba’ (Turtlehead) has a white flower.
Alternifolius – Alterni means alternate, so alternifolius means alternate leaves which can be found in the name Cornus alternifolius (Japanese Pagoda Tree).
Densifolius- Densi means dense, so densifolius can be used in plants that have dense foliage.
Elegans – This means, you guessed it, elegant which is used in the plant name Hosta ‘Elegans’ and Gypsophila elegans (Baby’s Breath).
Floribundus- Flori refers to flower and bundus means profuse. Put them together and it means “profusely flowering”.
Glauca – Is usually used to describe plants that have a powdery white coating on their leaves, known as bloom. This coating can make the plant appear blue in color. For example Picea pungens ‘Glauce Globosa’ is the botanical name for the Globe Blue Spruce.
Grandiflora – Grandi means large and flora also refers to flower. Put them together and they describe a plant that has large flowers such as the Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ (Pee Gee Hydrangea).
Nana or nanus - means “dwarf’ and is used in names of dwarf plants such as Taxus Cuspidata ‘Nana’ (Dwarf Yew) or Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Nanus’ (Dwarf Ninebark).
Villiflorus – Villi means “hairy” so villiflorus means “hairy flowers”.
While this is just a small sample of commonly used botanical terms, they will give you a better understanding behind the seemingly complicated botanical names of plants. Now that you have had a brief lesson on the lingo of plants, feel free to browse confidently through the local nursery or peruse your favorite gardening magazine with a clearer understanding behind the names of plants. At the very least you may impress a few friends or even win on a quiz show some day with your newly found expanded knowledge.