There are hundreds of thousands of plant species on the planet, with many new ones being discovered or bred each year. To accurately distinguish between them, each is assigned a unique name – often referred to as the Latin name, the scientific name or the botanical name.
While it’s fine to use common names such as lady’s mantle, poppy or heather, these can cause confusion, even within the same geographical area. For example, a harebell in England is known as a bluebell in Scotland. To confuse matters even more, each plant can have several common names, not only within individual countries but around the world, too.
The binomial (i.e. two-name) naming system that we use today, invented by a Swedish botanist called Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century, gets around this confusion by giving each plant its own unique name. It means that wherever you are in the world, and whatever language you speak, you will be able to identify a plant, and communicate with other growers. A Rosa rugosa (Japanese rose) will be recognised as such whether you live in Manchester, Melbourne or Mumbai.
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Botanical plant names can look off-putting and complicated, but they’re actually quite simple once you get the hang of them. They can tell you a lot about a plant, too, including its main characteristics and where it hails from originally. These can help you to understand a plant’s needs and to care for it correctly.
Here’s our easy guide to botanical plant names.
Genus and species
The genus starts with a capital letter. It represents a group of plants with similar characteristics – all the plants in the genus will share a recent common ancestor and look similar to each other. They are all likely to need similar growing conditions and will have similar pest and disease tolerance.
The species starts with a lowercase letter. All plants in the same species can reproduce with each other.
Sometimes within a species, small groups of plants can be found that are subtly different from the norm, having evolved in a distinct geographical area. This difference is noted using subsp. after the main plant name. Anthemis punctata subsp. cupaniana is a subspecies of Anthemis punctata and Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii is a subspecies of Euphorbia characias.
A variety is a plant that has a naturally occurring variation from the main species that is noted using ‘var.’ This comes about when two plants have cross-fertilised in the wild. For example, Geranium sanguineum var. striatum is a variety of cranesbill (hardy geranium).
A cultivar is any new plant that comes about in cultivation (rather than in the wild), by crossing two related plants. This could be a result of deliberate breeding, or it may be a lucky accident in the garden or nursery. Cultivar names are listed in title case, with each letter capitalised, and put in quotation marks. Often, this is the name of the person who bred or discovered the plant, or they might be named after another significant figure.
Whereas the genus, species, var. and subsp. names are Latin, cultivar names are usually in a modern language.
Sometimes the parents’ names are not known, or have been lost, so only the genus and cultivar names are used. For example, Dahlia ‘Doris Day’.
A forma, signified by ‘f.’ is a plant that has a minor difference to the species, such as leaf colour, flower colour or fruit, that occurs in the wild, such as a population of wild flowers in which a significant contingent are a different colour. For example, Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum has hairy or downy leaves.
Every genus belongs to a bigger group of plants, called a family. While they may look very different, they share common characteristics. Michaelmas daisies, globe artichokes and sunflowers, for example, are members of the Asteraceae family. Roses, strawberries, apples, and hawthorn are members of the Rosaceae family and tomatoes, potatoes, chillies and deadly nightshade all belong to the Solanaceae family. The family isn’t included in the plant name, but it is useful to be aware of it.
Latin names can give you useful information about a plant, including its colour, where it originates from and growth habit. For example, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Nana Alba’, pictured, has narrow leaves (angustifolia) and is compact (‘Nana’) with white flowers (‘Alba’). Here are some common words:
alba/albus – white
caerulea/caeruleus – blue
coccinea/coccineus – scarlet
argentea – silver
alpina/alpinus – alpine
campestris – field
maritima – coastal
montana – mountain
pratensis – meadow
sylvatica – forest
angustifolia – narrow leaves
fragans/fragrantissima – scented
foetida/foetidus – smelly (unpleasant)
grandiflora – large-flowered
nana – small, compact
odorata – perfumed
officinalis – has herbal uses
tomentosum – hairy, downy
columnaris – columnar
dentata – toothed
fruticosa – bushy
gracilis – slender
reptans – creeping
scandens – climbing
Country or area of origin
chinensis – China
japonica – Japan
sibiricus – Siberia
occidentalis – America
orientalis – Asia