Naming Plants

A rose is a rose is a rose? If only it were that simple! The truth is, most well-known plants go by several names: a scientific name and one or more common (or vernacular) names, depending on where the plant is found or grown. Making matters more confusing, a single common name can often refer to plants of several different botanical species. For instance, in the United States, “corn” is the common name for Zea mays, the vegetable enjoyed “on the cob.” Say the word “corn” to a farmer or baker in England, and they will think you are speaking about wheat (Triticum spp.). In Scotland, “corn” might refer to oats (Avena sativa).

The common name, as the term implies, is a name people coin to identify a local plant—for example, sweet violet, catnip, and dandelion are common names. Often, common names are colorfully descriptive, and they can provide valuable information about a plant’s traditional uses, characteristics, or growth habits. The name dandelion, for example, comes from the French dente de lion, which means “tooth of the lion” and describes the serrated edge of the leaf. Another common French name for dandelion, pis en lit, translates as “wet the bed,” a reference to the powerful diuretic properties of the dandelion leaf.

Botanically speaking, sweet violet, catnip, and dandelion are known as Viola odorata, Nepeta cataria, and Taraxacum officinale, respectively. Just like common names, botanical names offer fascinating clues about what plants look like, what they smell like, where they come from, and even how they are used medicinally. Using the same three plants as examples, it is possible to infer from the species name odorata that this violet has a distinctive fragrance. The name cataria indicates that this member of the genus Nepeta is linked in some way to felines. And the name officinale (or officinalis), which originally referred to a monastic storeroom or pharmacy, is an indication that a plant was utilized as a medicine based on its healing properties.

Sweet violet has several common names, including wood violet or English violet. But it has only one correct scientific name: Viola odorata.

Scientific Names: Linnaeus And The Binomial System

Although a plant might have several common names, it will have only one officially recognized botanical or scientific name. The advantage of using botanical names, or scientific nomenclature, is that it allows one—no matter what his or her native tongue—to understand exactly which herb is being discussed. For example, the spiny shrub Eleutherococcus senticosus—commonly called Siberian ginseng or eleuthero in the United States and devil’s shrub or thorny pepper bush in Russia—is understood to be Eleutherococcus senticosus whether one is a citizen of the United States or Russia. This is an important and basic standard, not only to botanists and other scientists, but also to herbalists, practitioners, and members of the botanical trade, who need to be absolutely certain about the identities of the plants they use.

Early plant scientists recognized the need for a system of terms that could be used to distinguish one particular plant species from all others in the world. This task was successfully accomplished by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), who in 1753 established what’s known as the binomial system of plant nomenclature. Linnaeus’s goal was to name and describe all known types of plants, as well as animals and even minerals. He believed that in so doing, he would reveal the grand pattern of creation. In a two-volume work called Species Plantarum, Linnaeus introduced a workable botanical classification system that would eventually bear his name.

Scientists quickly adopted Linnaeus’s system as a means of sorting out the vast numbers of new species being discovered at the time. Nearly 20 years before publishing Species Plantarum, Linnaeus proposed a polynomial (multiple-word) naming system to describe species, but in later editions of his works, this evolved into the basic binomial (two-word: genus and specific epithet) naming system used today. The Linnaean system of classification is based on relationships among living organisms, from the most general (kingdom) to the most specific (species). A species, the most basic unit of organization in the system, is composed of individuals that resemble one another more nearly than they resemble individuals of any other species.

Originally named Bromelia comosa by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, the pineapple plant was renamed Ananas comosus by Elmer Drew Merrill in 1917.

Using the plant Ginkgo biloba as an example, Ginkgo is the genus name and biloba is the specific epithet. In more formal use, such as in a scientific paper, the name of the botanist who first described the plant is also included. For example, Ginkgo biloba was described by Linnaeus, which is noted as part of the scientific name following the species: Ginkgo biloba L. And over time, if a different botanist decides that the plant belongs to another genus, then the original author’s name is put in parentheses, with the later author’s name following. For example, the scientific name of the pineapple is Ananas comosus (L.) Merr. While this wonderful fruit was first described by Linnaeus as Bromelia comosa L., in 1754, the species was moved to the genus Ananas by the renowned Pacific botanist Elmer Drew Merrill in a 1917 publication. Nearly 100 years later, the term Ananas comosus is still used to describe the pineapple plant.

But that’s not the case with all species. As our understanding of relationships among plant species and among plant families becomes more sophisticated, plants are moved into more precise alignments based on their evolutionary position in the “tree of life.” In this book, to simplify the binomials, we will not include the botanist’s names. If you are interested in this element of botanical history, the names and stories of the scientists who first applied them can be found in many other books and on the Web.

Far from static, these classifications change as new information alters scientists’ understanding of the relationships among organisms. Originally, all organisms were classified into two kingdoms: animal and plant. Now, based on information such as data obtained by molecular studies unavailable when the Linnaean system was introduced, most scientists use a six-kingdom classification scheme that separates fungi and certain other kinds of creatures into kingdoms of their own. Increasingly, biologists are recognizing a new rank—domain—above the grouping of kingdom. There are three domains: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. Herbs belong to the domain Eukarya, which contains animals, plants, fungi, and protists.