Thursday, December 29, 2005

How Do Plants Get Their Names?

If you are new to gardening, of even if you have been doing it for awhile, you may find plant naming systems to make little sense. You may see a name like Helianthus annus and have no idea whether or not that plant may be something that you want in your yard. Or you may see a sign for lungwort and not know whether it is dangerous or a medicinal herb or just plain fun. If you take some time to learn a little about the naming system, then you will find that plant names will make much more sense to you.

There are three basic naming systems for plants, and you should be familiar with all of them. The first name you will see will be the common name. These are the names that your neighbors or your Grandma will know. They are names like baby's breath or sunflower or daffodil. When you go to the store, you may find, however, that some of the names are not very descriptive. You may not know that there are dogwood trees and flowers, and if you see a small plant, you may not know which one you want. That is why it is important to be familiar with common names but not to rely on them solely. The biggest reason for using common names is that people will refer to the plants by those names. Your mom may say that magnolias would look nice, and you would want to know what they are before you agree or disagree. Being able to refer to the plants by their common names, even if your preference is for the Latin naming system, is important if you want to talk to other people about gardening. Most people are not familiar with the official names of the plants but only refer to them through common usage terms.

The second naming system is the binomial system. These words are in Latin. They are all two words. The Latin naming system breaks down living organisms from their most common denominator, such as animal, plant, or fungus, down through the nomenclature system to genus and species. An organism's scientific name is the genus and species classification, such as Homo sapiens for human beings. The genus is capitalized, and the species is lower case. While more than one plant may have the same genus, there is only one plant with the same species.

It would help if you are going to garden to become familiar with a little Latin. There are simple words that you should know. In the example at the beginning of this article, Helianthus annus is a sunflower. If you were familiar with Latin prefixes, you would know that helio is the prefix meaning sun. Another common Latin word you should know is folia, which means leaf. If you familiarize yourself with some basic Latin words, you will be able to read the Latin name and know what the plant is. These names are more helpful than the common names because they typically tell you something about the plant, such as its shape, size, or even the color of its flowers.

The final point on naming that you should understand is the cultivar. There is a small community of top-notch botanists who propagate plants based on chosen qualities. These hybrid plants are named for the botanist once they become popular. The cultivar system will show the name of the two plants that have been joined with the cultivator's name in single quotation marks after it. An example is Jane O'Connor's mix, which is shown as Aquilegia x hybrida 'Jane's White'.

Understanding these naming systems will make shopping for plants much easier. You will know what type of plant you want or need and should be able to get a good idea from the plant's names if it will work for your needs. Do not depend on common names or even the help at garden stores. They may not know that there are several different breeds of many common plant names, and you may get a common named plant and not realize what it actually is and that it will not work for you. An appreciation for plant names is vital to making good decisions for your gardening needs.

By Julia Mercer

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