Deciphering Botanical Latin Names

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.”

Binomials

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.

Author Citations

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.

Plant Parts

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.

Cultivars

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.

Other names

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. 

Resources Pinterest Board

 

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

How to Create Your Own Herbal Materia Medica

The term “materia medica” is latin for “healing materials.” In herbal medicine it refers to the body of knowledge that describes how plants can be used for healing purposes. The term dates back to Roman times when Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides published a five-volume work called De Materia Medica. De Materia Medica was a widely used resource for 1500 years, until updated herbals were written in the Renaissance, one of which is Carl Linnaeus’ Materia Medica. (Linnaeus is the father of modern taxonomy, and the reason why we have standard, international botanical names.)

Carl Linnaeus' Materia Medica

Monographs for your Materia Medica

 

A materia medica includes a collection of herbal monographs. A monograph is an organized set of information about a specific plant, collected into a report. A monograph can be a brief description of only a page, or it can be many pages. They often have the same key sections of information about the plant, including description, medicinal actions, growing habitat, and more.

It’s great to have a library of herbal reference books, but it’s even better to collect information about plants that you already have experience with, and grow your own personal materia medica as you gain first-hand experience with more and more plants. Reference books will have many plants that you haven’t used or don’t have access to, so I recommend collecting information about each plant that you do use, and have space in your materia medica to record your own observations as you meet the plant. Your senses can tell you a lot about the plant, so make room to record tastes, observations and experiences.

 

Herbal materia medica books at Bloom

As you embark on a journey of herbal learning, it’s a good idea to start collecting monographs and expand your notes as you learn.

Here’s a long list of possible sections to consider including in your monographs, depending on your interests. Look through the list and make a template for yourself of the information that’s important to you. 

General

Name
Latin Name
Family
Safety
Description
Habitat
Harvest Month
Related Species
Geographic Range
Sustainability Issues
Harvesting Guidelines

Medical

Parts Used
Actions
Preparations
Uses
Doses
Tastes
Energetics
Key Constituents
References & Research

Cultivation

Zones
Soil
Size
Propagation
Siting
Problem Insects and Diseases

Other Information

Culinary Uses
Folklore
Magical Uses

Materia Medica Formats

So how should you collect all of this information?

The first decision is whether you want to collect the information in hard copy, or digitally.

A paper method is easy and versatile in that you can make it like a scrap-book. You can easily include , and The advantage of digital methods is that they are searchable and expandable. The downside is that it is not as tactile or accessible. It might be easier and more enjoyable for some people to simply keep a binder of monographs, and then easily add more pages. 

Paper Methods

Binder

A binder is a cheap and easy way to collect pages, and you can easily expand your materia medica as your knowledge grows. Another pro is that there are page protectors and clear sleeves that you can use to keep recipe cards, magazine clippings or even pressed herbs.

Disc-Bound Notebook

A step up from a binder, which I prefer, is a notebook with disc binding. Setting up a disc-bound system is more expensive than just getting a binder because you need a special hole punch, but once you have the punch, you can add any page to a disc-bound notebook, just like you could to a binder.

The main advantage is that the cover can fold back on itself so it’s much easier to carry around and take notes. The other potential advantage is that there are many accessories available, if you like to customize your notebook. You can get rulers, pouches, dividers, sticky-notes and all sorts of things that snap into the special discs. There’s also a wide variety of covers available.

Disc-bound systems are available at Staples (called the Arc system) and at Michael’s (called Happy Planner). The Arc system is a good way to start; it’s simple and utilitarian.

Index Cards

Correne at Spirea Herbs loves her index card system. She uses a card per plant and keeps them all in a a box, like recipe cards. This method is great if know you’re only collecting notes, but it obviously can’t accommodate add-ons, like pressed flowers or large images.

Digital Methods

Word Processor

If you want your herbal monographs to be searchable, but you would also like to print them so you can flip through them easily, you can keep them all in one document. In Google Docs, you can have one long document with all your plant information, and if you use the built-in hierarchy of header formats (H1, H2, H3, etc) you can auto-generate a table of contents at the beginning that will automatically update when you add new plants and sections. Instead of scrolling, you can jump to the right section by clicking in the table of contents.

Google doc with table of contents for materia medica

Database

I like disc-bound notebooks, but my absolute favourite method of collecting information is in a database.

If you’re a little bit tech savvy, you can collect your information in a database to make it easily searchable. Technically, the information in a database wouldn’t be a “monograph” because it’s a collection of information about several herbs, but the information in one record could be re-formatted into a monograph.

Database Terminology

A database is simply a structured method of organizing information on a computer.

A record is the collected information about one subject. The record contains fields, which are the categories of information about that record.

For example, you would have a record for each plant, and that record could contain fields of information such as Latin Name, Actions, Contraindications, Growing Habitat, etc.

The magic of a database is the versatility of organization. You can search for exactly what you’re looking for, and can arrange and visualize your records of plants in any way you want. You could search for a specific action or use, or for example, if you have a field for “Flower Colour” you could group your plants by flower colour, or if you have a field for “Harvest Month” you could arrange them by month.

My favourite database software is AirTable.  It’s an easy, free, online database software. It looks similar to a spreadsheet, but has many options for field types and displaying your data. You can even insert images and view your database like a gallery.

Just to give you some inspiration of how you can organize information with AirTable, I found this Base of someone’s garden almanac and this one with someone’s seed records. You can easily create your own custom database for organizing your plant knowledge. You can even make a table to keep track of inventory or medicines you’ve made, all in one place.

To help get you started, I’ve made this Google Doc Materia Medica template for you. If you choose Google Docs as your method for your materia medica, you can just copy and paste the template over and over to add more plants to your list. Make sure to keep a blank template to copy at th ebottom of the document before you start filling it in. And you can, of course, delete any fields you don’t want to fill in.

And if you decide to make your materia medica in another medium, you can always use this as a reference for the kinds of information you might want to include.

The sooner you start collecting and organizing your plant data, the better! Your collection will grow and grow as you become familiar with more herbs, so it’s best to build a good foundation.

If you’re interested in building your herbal medicine knowledge, and developing a relationship for each of the plants that you study, consider enrolling in Holistic Herbal Wellness. The course is one day a month throughout a whole year so you’ll get dozens of monographs to build your collection, but more importantly, you’ll get out in the forests and fields to meet each plant in season.

The class starts in September. Register now if you’re planning on going, because you can get the early bird price until June 15th.