Scientific Names for Plants Help to Weed Out Confusion

— Written By and last updated by Diane Lynch

Q: What does a plant’s scientific name mean?

A: You may have been spending these cold winter days flipping through gardening books or magazines only to find a plant being called by its scientific name instead of a common name. A plant’s scientific name looks like a foreign language that does not make any sense. Many often wonder why scientific names are used for plant names instead of a common name. Believe it or not, there really is some rhyme and reason as to why scientific plant names are useful instead of just looking like a lot of mumbo jumbo.

The main reason for plants to have scientific names is to eliminate confusion. Some common names may be used for more than one plant. If I was talking about a snowball bush, what type of plant comes to mind? Some people may think of a type of viburnum, while others think of a type of hydrangea. Now you may see where common names can cause problems.

Common names can be confusing also because some plants may have more than one common name. For example the scientific plant name, Liriodendron tulipifera, is known as tulip tree, tulip poplar, and yellow poplar, even though it is not a poplar at all.
Scientific names are used to eliminate some of this confusion. All plants have a scientific name and you are right if you think scientific names look like another language because it is Latin, which is the international language of science. Since all scientific names for plants are in Latin, you could travel to another country, call a plant its scientific name, and someone (if they are an avid gardener) would be able to know what plant you are talking about.

Every scientific name is made up of two parts, the genus and the specific epithet. These two parts put together identify what the plant species is. As an example, take the name Acer rubrum or better known as a red maple. The genus, Acer, is the Latin name for maple. So, when you see a plant with the genus Acer you know that it is some type of maple.

But there are many types of maples so the specific epithet, which is the second part of a scientific name, describes what type of maple. The specific epithet, rubrum, means red and with the genus tells you that the plant is a red maple.

Once you get use to looking at scientific names, you will notice that some names help describe the plant. For example, the second name will some times describe a color: alba (white), rubra (red), nigra (black), viridis (green), and purpurea (purple).

Other scientific names can describe the habit or form of a plant. If you see “procumbens” as part of a name, the plant is usually low-growing. “Repens” indicates a plant that creeps, “eletum” means tall referring to the plant’s height.

Unfortunately, there will always be those scientific names that appear to make no sense at all like Liquidambar styraciflua which is referring to a sweetgum tree. Scientific names can appear tricky or confusing, but by paying attention to them when reading or shopping for plants, you can start to learn then and actually find them helpful.

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Jessica Strickland
Extension Agent
North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Wayne County Center
P. O. Box 68
Goldsboro, NC 27533
Phone: 919-731-1520
Fax: 919-731-1511