What’s in a [plant] name?

Do you ever get confused by plant names?  Which words are capitalized? Which are included in quotes? What about the symbols, abbreviations and numbers you see on some plant tags? Do you ever wonder why plants often have two names; a scientific name and a common name?

Let’s answer a few of these questions in today’s and tomorrow’s blog posts.

Two names

The scientific system of naming plants using Latin began about 250 years ago when a fellow named Linnaeus published a book called Species Plantarum in which he listed every species of plant known at the time. The first word in the scientific name represents the genus of the plant, and the second word represents the “specific epithet.”  Together, the two words constitute the species name.  For example, Rudbeckia hirta is a common prairie plant for our region known as black-eyed Susan.

Well, why don’t we just call the plant black-eyed Susan? Most likely because there are more than one kind of plant known as a black-eyed Susan. Take a look at the three images above. They are all commonly called black-eyed Susan, yet here are some facts about each:

A: Rudbeckia fulgida  An easily grown herbaceous perennial that spreads by rhizomes.

B: Rudbeckia hirta  A biennial or short-lived perennial, best grown as an annual.

C: Thunbergia alata  A tropical vine grown as an annual north of USDA zone 10.

Not only do we find common names shared across several species of plants, we also find that common names vary from region to region for the same plant. For instance, Rudbeckia hirta shares all of these additional common names: brown-eyed Susan, brown Betty, gloriosa daisy, golden Jerusalem, Poorland daisy, yellow daisy, and yellow ox-eye daisy. Yikes – that can get confusing.

So if you’re looking for a plant with just the right characteristics to fit into your landscape, it’s best to stick to the scientific name to ensure you find the right one!