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Which Plant Is That?

Scientifically appointed plant names are more than a sophisticated, pretentious alternative to a plant’s common name.

While vernacular or common names may be more identifiable to gardeners – and easier to remember – they are no substitute for botanic names.

As with medical terms, botanic names have information attached to them. Botanical names are binomials that draw on Latin genus and species, and for a binomial to be legitimate, it must conform to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.

Unlike medical terms, however, what the name makes reference to may be less obvious, as it could pertain to the appearance, use or any other property of the plant and the usefulness of botanic taxonomy is limited.

But this shouldn’t deter one from learning a plant’s proper name, as they are necessary even for the every day green thumb. Just one subtle difference in the names of plants from the same genus can indicate significant differences in the use or effects of the plant, even if the plants appear to be identical. Knowing specific varieties and how they vary can be vital, especially when intending to use the plant for medicinal purposes or when determining if contact with a particular plant is safe, as in those with allergies.

Inappropriately labeled plants, or the act of mistaking one species for another can also skew research. Because common names are often unreliable the same plant may have several different common names depending on the location, making research on wild or locally cultivated plants more difficult. It may not come as a surprise then that these species are less known to researchers than major crop plants. If nothing else, a single, universally known name is more efficient, whatever its origins may be.

Botanic names are also important for identifying whether a plant is native, so that you aren’t accidentally planting invasive plants. Knowing a plant’s synonyms is equally important, in case the plant you are seeking is labeled under a different name. Just remember that “official” names can change. Often this is due to new information, as a species labeled under one genus may be found to have properties more in common with another genus.

Nonetheless, there are certain characteristics that stay the same and are important to remember when identifying botanic names:

A proper botanic name will be unambiguous. Each plant can have only one official name at a time. All other names are synonyms. All names consist, in order, of the plant’s genus, species, and author. The genus will always be capitalized, while the species is lowercase and never capitalized.

For example, Bellis perennis, commonly known as a daisy. Indicating that it is from the genus “Bellis” and of the “perennis” species. An “L” could be added to the end to make reference to the author, Carl Linneas, who laid the foundation for today’s botanic nomenclature. The genus and species are essential and will always be present in the plant’s name. Some plant names will also include a sub-species and variety.

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