Interpreting Plant Tags
With the garden lying fallow, January seems like the perfect time to brush up on your Latin and Greek. Why? Well, imagine for a moment that it’s spring and you’re in a garden center where you see a grassy-looking plant that interests you. The plant tag identifies it as Sisyrinchium angustifolium. If you are intimidated by strange-sounding scientific names such as this one, relax. You’re not alone. Horticulturists use scientific names instead of common names to identify or define a particular feature of a plant. In the case of this plant, it happens to be a narrow leaved blue-eyed grass. The botanical term angustifolium describes the plant’s narrow leaves, thus setting it apart from other blue-eyed grass species, such as white blue-eyed grass, stout blue-eyed grass, slender blue-eyed grass, or Montane blue-eyed grass, to name just a few.
Scientific names are usually in Latin or Greek and are well documented in scientific publications. The important thing to remember is that they are standardized worldwide and are accepted by botanists in all countries. In other words, no matter where you live on this planet, a birch tree will always be correctly identified as such when it is referred to by its scientific name, Betula, rather than its common name.
Common names, on the other hand, are not standardized and can vary from person to person, area to area, or country to country. For example, as a child, I remember hearing my mother refer to a favorite shrub as a “snowball bush.” The plant may have been a Hydrangea or possibly a Viburnum. Both have been called snowball bushes, but they are two entirely different species.
To help you crack the code on commonly used botanical terms, here are a few that describe specific features of plants, such as their leaf shapes, plant shapes, unique features, and colors as well as countries of origin. Note that many of these terms have “masculine” or “feminine” endings depending on the gender of the root word. For example, Helianthus angustifolius is masculine whereas Lavendula angustifolia is feminine.
Shapes of leaves – Many scientific plant names refer to the size and shape of the leaves. Some commonly cited leaf shapes include:
- Angustifolia – narrow leaved. Example: Zinnia angustifolia (narrowleaf zinnia)
- Lanceolata – lance shaped. Example: Coreopsis lanceolata (lanceleaf coreopsis)
- Longifolia – long leaved. Example: Phlox longifolia (longleaf phlox)
- Macrophylla – large leaved. Example: Magnolia macrophylla (big leaf magnolia)
- Microphylla – small leaved. Example: Rhus microphylla (littleleaf sumac)
- Palmatum – hand-shaped. Example: Acer palmatum (Japanese maple)
- Rotundifolia – round leaved. Example: Smilax rotundifolia (roundleaf greenbriar)
- Verticillata – thread leaved. Example: Coreopsis verticillata (threadleaf coreopsis)
Shapes of plants — Some plants are named for the shape of the plant or the shape of the flower. Aster, which is Latin for star, refers to the plant’s star-shape flowers. Some other commonly used terms referring to plant shapes include:
- Arborescens – tree-like. Example: Hydrangea arborescens (smooth hydrangea)
- Elegans – elegant, slender. Example: Salvia elegans (pineapple sage)
- Fruticosa – shrub-like. Example: Potentilla fruticosa (shrubby cinquefoil)
- Humilis – low-growing. Example: Sarcococca hookeriana var. ‘Humilis’ (sweet box)
- Nana – dwarf, miniature. Example: Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’ (Japanese garden juniper)
- Pendula – drooping. Example: Picea abies ‘Pendula’ (weeping Norway spruce)
- Procumbens – prostrate. Example: Gaultheria procumbens (Eastern teaberry)
- Pumila – low-growing, dwarf. Example: Ficus pumila (creeping fig)
- Repens or reptans – creeping. Example: Mazus reptans (creeping Mazus)
Unique features of plants – Still other terms refer to specific or unique features of plants, such as:
- Contorta – contorted growth habit. Example: Coryllus avellana ‘Contorta’ (Harry Lauder’s walking stick)
- Cordata – heart-shaped. Example: Pontederia cordata (pickerel weed)
- Grandiflora – large flowered. Example: Magnolia grandiflora (southern magnolia)
- Laevis – smooth. Example: Symphyotrichum laevis (smooth Aster)
- Maculata – spotted. Example: Phlox maculata (spotted phlox)
- Millefolium – thousand-leaved. Example: Achillea millefolium (common yarrow which is also known as thousand leaf)
- Multiflora – many-flowered. Example: Rosa multiflora (multiflora rose)
- Officinalis – used as. Example: Salvia officinalis (culinary sage)
- Semperflorens – everblooming. Example: Begonia semperflorens (wax begonia)
- Sempervirens – evergreen. Example: Gelsemium sempervirens (evergreen Carolina yellow jasmine)
- Spectabilis – spectacular. Example: Penstemon spectabilis (showy penstemon)
- Superbum – superb. Example: Lilium superbum (Turk’s cap lily)
- Variegata – variegated. Example: Vinca Major ‘Variegata’ (variegated greater periwinkle)
- Vulgaris – common. Example: Syringa vulgaris (common lilac)
Colors of flowers or foliage – A good many plant names refer to color, including:
- Alba – white. Example: Quercus alba (white oak)
- Argenteus – silver. Example: Thymus argenteus (silver thyme)
- Aurantiaca – orange. Example: Agastache aurantiaca (orange hummingbird mint)
- Aureus – golden. Example: Epipremnum aureus (golden pothos)
- Azureus – sky blue. Example: Salvia azurea (azure blue sage)
- Nigra – black. Example: Salix nigra (black willow)
- Purpurea – purple. Example: Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower)
- Rosea – rose. Example: Zephryanthes rosea (pink rain lily)
- Rubrum – red. Example: Epimedium x rubrum (red barrenwort)
- Viridis – green. Example: Asclepias viridis (green milkweed)
Countries of Origin – Still other plants are named for their geographical or regional origins such as African violet, Russian sage, Japanese anemone, American beautyberry, Mexican bush sage, and California poppy. Origin names commonly found on plant tags include:
- Australis – southern. Example: Plectranthus australis (Swedish ivy, which, despite its common name, is native to south Africa)
- Borealis – northern. Example: Linnaea borealis (twinflower, which is distributed throughout Canada and the northern United States)
- Canadensis – From Canada or America. Example: Amelanchier canadensis (Canadian serviceberry)
- Chinensis – From China. Example: Dianthus chinensis (Chinese pinks)
- Germanica – From Germany. Example: Iris germanica (German Iris)
- Japonicum – From Japan. Example: Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Japanese katsura tree)
- Virginiana – From Virginia. Example: Magnolia virginiana (sweetbay magnolia)
Plants named for people – In addition to unique features described above, plants are often named for people. It’s not uncommon for a plant to be named in honor of the person who discovered it or bred it. Here are just a few examples:
- Amsonia hubrichtii – Named for Leslie Hubricht (1908-2005), a biologist who discovered the plant growing in Arkansas in 1942.
- Astilbe x arendsii – Named for George Arends (1862-1954), a German plant breeder who introduced 74 cultivars of astilbe.
- Clematis x jackmanii – Named for George Jackman (1837-1887), a 19th century British horticulturist and nurseryman who focused his work on clematis hybrids.
These are just a sampling of botanical terms to pique your interest and perhaps take some of the mystery out of the scientific names given to plants. Now, having brushed up on your plant nomenclature, sit back and take a long, hopeful look at that garden catalog that just arrived!