The Plant Native

Do I need to know Latin plant names?

No—you do not need to learn Latin to get into native plant gardening. Having a Latin plant name is helpful when you’re looking for a very specific plant—and you can find a Latin name via a quick Google search or in our Plant Library. Most of the time, the plant’s common name is all you need.

Latin names ensure error-free plant identification (and give some respect in plant nerd communities). But it’s easy to understand the basic gist of how Latin names work. Here is a quick overview of common and Latin plant naming:

Like most people in America, every native plant in America has a few different names. Plant names fall into two categories: common names or Latin names.

  • The common name is a plant’s nickname: it’s a name given generations before, and most of the time is inspired by how the plant looks or behaves (Bee Balm is a good example)
  • The Latin name is a plant’s first name and last name: and just like a person or an actor in the Screen Actors Guild, there is only one first-name-last-name per plant

Let’s dig into both these types of names and lend some confidence as to when (and why) you might need to find a plant’s Latin name.

First up: Common Name

What is a common name?

A common name is a nickname for a plant that is used widely. It’s very similar to people. For instance, Dwayne Johnson’s common name would be The Rock.

Where do common names for plants come from?

Common plant names are given by the generations that came long before us. They often carry their own histories or help describe a plant’s unique characteristics:

  • Buffalo Grass is a native prairie grass; the name itself conjures up herds of buffalo munching the grass alongside Native Americans for thousands of years
  • Ninebark’s common name refers to its unique bark, which peels back to reveal layers as it ages
  • Milkweed gets its common name from its sap, which is milky white
  • Obedient Plant has flowers you can bend, so previous generous decided to call it ‘obedient’

But one plant can have many common names

The challenge: many plants have several common names. Common names for the same plant can vary from region to region or cultural background. Here are some plants with many common names, alongside their singular Latin name:

Coral Bells = Alum root = Heuchera 

Bee balm = Bergamot = Oswego tea = Monarda = Monarda didyma

This is why there is only ONE Latin name

Latin names help eliminate confusion

Every plant has only ONE Latin name. Plant labels in nurseries and botanical gardens truncate Latin names to just two words, which represent a plant’s Genus and Species. (More on this, below!)

Knowing the Latin name is a great way to avoid confusion when you want to find a specific plant. I might call it Bee Balm, or you might call it bergamot, but if we wanted to share a common language and ensure we were talking about the same plant, the Latin name (Monarda didyma) is a big help.

When did Latin naming for plants start?

Plants started getting Latin names in 1753, the year when Carl von Linne a.k.a. (Linnaeus) came up with his system of “binomial nomenclature.” This title makes the naming system sound much more complicated than it is. It is a fancy title for something that is just as straightforward as America’s first-name, last-name system.

Latin name = Genus Species (Just two words! Not so scary.)

It’s easy to understand Latin naming—especially when you think of it like our first-name-last-name system. Every plant has a botanical name in Latin that is normally shortened to two words.

  • The first word is the Genus—or the group of plants with similar characteristics to which the plant belongs (I remember Genus and Group by their shared first letter.)
  • The second word is the plant’s Species—or a smaller group within the genus (I remember Species and smaller or Specialty.) Sometimes species may also be referred to as a plant’s “specific epithet.”

The Genus is very similar to our last names: there are normally dozens if not hundreds of plants within a Genus. The Genus Species relationship is similar to the first-name-last-name system for people if we flipped the order. (For instance, we’d know Knowles Béyonce, Johnson Dwayne, or Reeves Keanu if we binomially nomenclature-d people.)

Let’s take it for a spin, shall we?

Introducing…the Lobelia genus

The cool thing about understanding how Latin naming works is that you can quickly see plant families. For instance:

‘Lobelia cardinalis’

Cardinal flower

‘Lobelia SIPHILITICA’

Great Blue Lobelia

Both of these Lobelias are super yummy plants for hummingbirds and butterflies; you can see at a glance how their tall, flower-filled stalks are similar, making them cousins in the Lobelia genus.

The crazy thing is that the Lobelia genus has 414 plants in it! No one could remember the names of 414 cousins, so you don’t have to either.

However…

Latin names are useful for finding that one, very specific plant

Let’s say you’re visiting a friend’s garden and you spot it: the most beautiful plant you’ve ever seen in your life. It has a shape that stops you in your tracks. The flowers connect with your soul and you know: you must grow this plant. You ask your friend what it’s called, and they tell you it’s false dragonhead. You both laugh about how it must come from Game of Thrones (you joke about calling it Khalesi flower) as you take a picture, excited to go to the plant nursery and get your own.

False dragonhead (or maybe Khalesi flower?)

At the plant nursery, you ask if they have false dragonheads. The staff member shakes their head, perplexed. They walk you over to snapdragons, saying this is the closest thing they have. 

If you knew the Latin name, you’d be able to ensure you’d found the specific plant you’re looking for. Turns out, the false dragonhead (which also goes by the common name ‘obedient plant‘) has the Latin name Physostegia virginiana. The Latin name would ensure you found the plant you wanted.

How do you find a plant’s Latin name?

If you’re looking for a very specific plant, do a quick online search of its common name to find its Latin name. You can also explore our native plant library, which includes the Latin names of all our featured plants. Save your favorites via a screenshot or save them to Notes.

Every plant at a nursery or plant sale includes the Latin name on the plant tag. Now, whenever you’re at a nursery or plant sale, you’ve got your list to look for. You’ll be certain of plant identification if you use its Latin name.

In conclusion, just like you don’t worry about remembering the names of your cousin’s in-laws, don’t worry about Latin names

Latin names are great for finding specific plants and seeing how plants are related. It’s fun to know a few of your favorite genus or species names, but don’t feel the need to make flashcards. And now you know how easy it is to understand the basic genus-species system.

Ready to get started on your native garden? Let’s do this!

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