Understanding botanical plant names

In this short video, Alan Titchmarsh demystifies botanical plant names.

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In this short video with Alan Titchmarsh, he demystifies botanical plant names, revealing why they’re used in the first place, and how to understand them, with the beautiful black elder, Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ serving as his example.

Understanding botanical plant names: transcript

If there’s one thing that puts people off gardening more than anything else, it is, and I quote ‘those dreadful Latin names’. They are confusing, they are complicated, but there’s a very good reason why they’re there.

They’re more accurately referred to as botanical names because although they’re mainly Latin, some Greek creeps in as well. They were devised by a Swede, a man called Linnaeus, Carl von Linne, who discovered, as most of us do, that if you just use a common name for a plant, it can be confusing, because in different
countries, they have different common names. In different localities, they have different common names. The rosebay willow herb, for instance, is also known as fireweed or bomb weed, depending on where you are. And if you’re trying to find one, then you really could do with a name that everybody uses, which is why it’s called Chamaenerion angustifolium.

Right, let’s go back to the beginning. If you’ve got a lovely plant like this cut-leaved, purple elder and it has a botanical name that you want to get your head round. There is a sort of key as to how they’re used. This particular plant has a name comprised of three different parts. And what happens in the plant world with
botanical names is that you get surname first and then Christian name and then the other fancy bit on the end. So Titchmarsh Alan as opposed to Alan Titchmarsh. This, the Titchmarsh bit, is Sambucus – that’s the genus; following that is this species. This is Sambucus nigra, meaning black; and then, there is in inverted commas at the end, the cultivar, the cultivated variety name. And this is ‘Black Lace’. So you can see how these names build up, can’t you? Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’. But you can go anywhere in this country, anywhere in the world and ask for Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and get it. That’s why we need botanical names, because they they’re universal and we then know exactly what we’re talking about.

There are other slight problems. Names change, plants become reclassified. But basically, that is your key. The first name will always be the genus, Sambucus; the second name, always the species, nigra; the third name, always the cultivar or the variety. A cultivar is a manmade variety, and it will always be in single inverted commas. If you find all three names are written in italics, then it’s a naturally occurring variety.

I do hope that hasn’t confused you even more, but at least it’s hopefully given you the reason why we talk about plants with their botanical names, because once you get your head around them, it’s not too difficult to remember – Titchmarsh Alan, Mr.