Deciphering Botanical Latin Names
The Latin names help us to reference specific plants across languages, and fields of study, but what do they mean and where do they come from?
Plants have many names from different languages, cultures and regions. Common names refer to the vernacular name that “the locals” would call it, but then there are Latin names used by botanists, herbalists, and other scientists. Healing modalities that evolved in other cultures have their own names for the plants as well, such as Ayurvedic names from Sanskrit, and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) names from Mandarin. Even within one language or region there can be many names for one plant, such as ground ivy and creeping charlie [Glechoma hederacea] or hawthorn and thornapple [Crataegus monogyna]. It can vary from region to region or continent to continent. What we call fireweed [Chamaenerion angustofolium] is called rosebay willowherb in England, and blooming Sally in Ireland.
It doesn’t really matter what we call them, because, we all know that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” but what does matter is that we can convey to each other exactly which plant we’re referencing.
To solve this problem, many scientists have endeavoured to come up with a universal system of names to describe the natural world. The names are derived in part from how the plant is classified.
What is taxonomy?
Taxonomy is the branch of science concerned with classification, especially of organisms. Taxonomists define and name groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics.
The Linnaean System & The Origin of Latin Names
Living organisms are categorized into increasingly specific groups. The first major division is Kingdoms, of which the Plant Kingdom is one of six. The other kingdoms are Animals, Protists, Fungi, Archaebacteria, and Eubacteria.
A kingdom is further divided into a hierarchy of groups and subgroups called Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
Anatomy & Usage of Latin Botanical Names
Herbalists are mostly concerned with Family, Genus, and Species.
Experienced herbalists become familiar with shared characteristics of major plant families. Sometimes plants in the same family will share some medicinal properties. Knowing some characteristics of a plant family can also help with identification.
Plant families have Latin names ending in “-aceae,” meaning “resembling” but some also have common names. For example, vegetables in the family Brassicaceae are collectively referred to as “cruciferous” vegetables, and members of the parsley family, Apiaceae, are commonly called “umbellifers.”
Latin botanical names are also referred to as “binomials” because they have two parts. The first part is the genus, and is capitalized, and the second word is the species, which is not capitalized. Latin names are usually written in italics.
When making a list of botanical names in the same genus, you can abbreviate the genus.
Example: Artemesia absinthium, A. vulgaris, A. dracunculus, A. annua
If you are referring to several species and don’t need to specify which species, you can use the abbreviation spp. after the genus.
Example: Artemesia spp.
Here’s an interesting list of some of the Latin words used in plant names.
Finally, you may also see a name or an abbreviated capital letter at the end of a Latin name. This is the author citation, and it refers to the person or group of people who first published the name while fulfilling the formal requirements as specified by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN), the set of rules and recommendations dealing with the formal botanical names that are given to plants, fungi and a few other groups of organisms, all those “traditionally treated as algae, fungi, or plants”.
The most common author citation seen after binomial Latin names is L. which stands for Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist who formalised binomial nomenclature. He is considered the father of modern taxonomy, and we still use his basic system of classification today.
On tincture or dried herb labels, you might also see the words radix, fruc or flos in the names. These stand for the parts of the plants used in the medicine. Radix means root, flos means flower, and fruc is short for fructus, which means fruit.
Other Naming Conventions
There are other naming conventions to get even more specific when referencing plants, but many of these are to do with cultivation. There are subspecies, hybrids, varieties, and cultivars. A subspecies (preceded by the abbreviation “subsp.”) is a geographically separate population within a species that is almost, but not quite, a separate species. A variety (preceded by “var.”) is a distinct variant occurring in the same populations as ordinary examples of a species. A cultivar is defined as a plant whose origin or selection is primarily due to intentional human activity.
Herbalists are less likely to encounter any of these except for cultivars (CULTivated VARiety) because you will find cultivar names at typical garden centres. Cultivated plants have their own International Code.
If you encounter a third word in single quotes after a Latin name, that is a cultivar. A cultivar is a cultivated variety of a species that is selectively bred for desirable characteristics that are maintained during propagation. More generally, a cultivar is the most basic classification category of cultivated plants.
Example: Rosa canina ‘Assisiensis’ a cultivar of Dog Rose that is selectively cultivated without prickles.
Herbal references generally don’t include cultivar names. Although many medicinal plants are sold at garden centres as ornamentals, they are often a named cultivar. Sambucus nigra, for example comes in many cultivars such as ‘Scotia’ and ‘Black Beauty.’ Bloom Institute’s founder, Savayda Jarone, suggests sourcing plants from dealers who specialize in medicinal or indigenous plants that don’t have cultivar names, to ensure the integrity of the medicinal properties. Most plant breeders are developing qualities such as disease-resistance, showier blossoms, size of plant, etc. and are not concerned about the medicinal properties. For example, there is an elderberry cultivar called ‘Laced Up’ that is bred to grow more tall and narrow than typical elderberry shrubs. This is great for saving space in the garden, but the medicinal potency of ‘Laced Up’ versus an uncultivated variety is unknown.
If you’re interested in how other cultural traditions have used plants as medicine, you’ve probably come across TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) or Ayurvedic names for plants.
All these names can get pretty confusing, but I’ve done some research for you. On the Bloom Institute Pinterest profile, you’ll find a board called References, where I’ve pinned some databases of plant names of Ayurveda and TCM. You can use these to search in Chinese, Hindi, or English and find a translation and Latin name of the plant you want to reference.
PS In researching this post, I also discovered that many of Carl LInnaeus’ books are available online at Open Library. Here’s one on plants. https://archive.org/stream/b28777372_0001?ref=ol#page/n93/mode/2up