botanicals and latin

Did you ever learn in biology the mnemonic phrase “Dear King Philip Came Over For Good Soup”?

It refers to the taxonomy (naming of species) order of Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genius and Species.  The last three of this order helps us horticultural geeks identify our plants!

Let’s take a quick lesson in using botanical Latin terms which is just the scientific name of a plant.  Yeah, I know you might prefer to just use the common names but that could potentially be a problem in the long run.   For example, poison oak, she oak, sumac oak are NOT oaks at all they are in a totally different family of plants so using the common names vary from region to region, can be overly general and can change over time.  When we use botanical Latin names, we are more precise, and the names are universal.

If we look at one of my favorite plants, we can break down the various orders frequently used in botanical Latin naming.

Begoniaceae is the Family for begonias.  Any time you see the suffix  “aceae” at the end of a word it is most likely referring to the order of Family for the plant in question.

For example, Iridaceae is the family for the crocus plant and Amaryllidaceae is the family for daffodils.

The genus and species are the next two main taxonomic orders used on a consistent basis. We call this the binomial naming of plants we only use two of the orders bi=two; genus and species. Let us get back to begonias.

Begoniaceae Begonia bowerae

So the first part is the Family because of the ending of -aceae and the second part is the Genus it is always italicized and the first letter capitalized.  The genus is a group of plants that have similar characteristics they have a common ancestor, similar habits such as growing patterns. The third part is the Species, it too is italicized but begins with a lowercase letter. The species can all reproduce with one another.

You may see a tag that says this : Begonia ‘Tiger Paws’  here the first part is the Genus and the second part is letting you know it is a cultivar because the term Tiger Paws is in quotes.

Monstera sp. Peru which denotes a subspecies and has evolved in a specific geographic area. This Monstera was found in Peru.

Two plants that have crossed naturally in the wild are denoted as a variety; written as such Ilex verticillate var. fastigiate.

When two plants have crossed because of man it is a cultivar and is written as Ilex aquifolium ‘Lily Gold’ or Ilex aquifolium cv. Lily Gold. The quotes tell you the plant is a cultivar as mentioned above.

Sometimes the label will have an f. in the description and is written as such Echeveria agavoides f. Cristata. Cristata is latin for crested or tufted helmet so the plant has mounds of crests or tufts within its shape of the leaves. Whereas a regular Echeveria has a rosette form.

This f. refers to the Form of a plant and tells there is a minor difference shown within the species which could be the shape of plant as discussed above.

The letter X found in a label of a plant refers to it being a hybrid which is a cross between two species of plants. Such as Ilex x koehneana  which is a cross between Ilex aquifolium and Ilex latifolia if it had not been given a name it would have been written Ilex aquifolium x latifolia.

Latin names tell you something about the plant specifically thus the another reason to use latin terms.

Last lesson let’s look at some common Latin terms you may see that will help you identify certain characteristics of plants:

Alba- white

Argenta – silver

Ater, nigra-black


Chrysus, luteus, aurea -yellow

Erythron, rubra – red

Ferrugineus – rusty

Purpureus – purple

Virens- green

Contorta – twisted

Globose- rounded

Maculata- spotted


Nana- dwarf


Reptans, prostrata -creeping

Scadens – climbing

Africanus -Africa

Canadensis – Canada

Indicus- India

Japonicus, japonica, nipponicus – Japan

Chinensis, sinensis – China

Maritima- seaside

Montana- mountains

Occidentalis – western hemisphere

Orientalis – eastern hemisphere

Sylvestris- woodland

Dentata- toothed

Odorata- perfumed

There are many more but hopefully these are some to get you started, now go look at some of your labels and you may see some of the identifications listed above.

Hopefully this has been helpful for you and maybe gave you the courage to start using botanical Latin names instead of the common names for plants.  Plus you will sound even more amazingly intelligent, giggling.  Have fun and please give it a try!

See this lovely beauty, now you know why it is given the name Begonia maculata, pretty cool huh?

Mazus reptans ‘Alba’ : Based on what we learned, what can we say about this plant’s label? It is a creeping white mazus plant!

Till next time, get hands dirty, walk barefoot on grass and sit still in your gardens in joy!

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