Linnaeus in Your Garden

Linnaeus in Your Garden

  • By Frances Boninti
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  • May 2016-Vol.2 No.5
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Eventually, all gardeners, as they progress into the horticultural world, realize that the common names of plants have some limitations.  Local common names can create confusion.  Two gardeners using a common name could be talking about two different plants and never realize it.  A great example is bluebells. Do you mean the bulb or the native herbaceous plant?  A situation like this calls for a more precise nomenclature, right?  And fortunately gardeners the world over have one — botanical Latin.

If you travel anywhere in the world visiting gardens — whether you speak the native tongue or not — if the plants are labeled in botanical Latin, you’ll know exactly what plant it is you’re viewing. This common language among gardeners and scientists came to us thanks to Carl Von Linné,  who later adopted his own Latin name — Linnaeus.

Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist during the 18th century.  He is known as the Father of Taxonomy, a branch of science that  groups and classifies plants as well as insects, animals, birds, etc.  Linnaeus designed the binomial (that is, two-names) classification system for plant species in his 1753 book Species Plantarum.   The language of choice  was and is Latin,  though the dreaded Latin of high school students is a bit different from botanical Latin.  Botanical Latin has been anglicized; plus, other languages besides Latin are used in plant taxonomy.

Species Plantarum

Species Plantarum

The scientific system of classification divides all living things into groups called taxa.  Plants are in the kingdom of Plantae.  The six essential terms of plant taxonomy are probably somewhat familiar from high school biology.   These groups always follow this particular order:








You might be wondering why you should bother to learn the taxonomy of plants.  Well, for one thing, the names indicate relationships and similarities in the plant world.  A gardener who knows something about the plant families will have a better understanding of the basis for many cultural practices as well as pests and diseases common to members of that plant family. . For example, fire blight is a disease of the rose family.  If you know which genera fall within the rose family, you’ll be better equipped to diagnose fire blight.  Did you know that the rose family includes such seemingly different plants as apples, cotoneaster, potentillas, peach, plum, mountain ash and scads of other landscape plants?

Plant Taxonomy Image from Purves et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 4th ed., by Sinauer Associates/

Plant Taxonomy, Purves et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 4th ed.


The two divisions we will come to understand this month are genus and species. Within a family of plants there are MANY genera (which is the plural of genus.)  Within a genus, there could be trillions of species or just one.  When you look at a plant label at the nursery, the Latin name — which is the plant’s scientific name —  consists of the genus and species.

Because taxonomy is a precise system,  a scientific plant name follows certain rules.   Genus always comes first and is ALWAYS capitalized. Species always comes second and is ALWAYS lower case.   SO: my name is Frances Boninti, but in the scientific system of plant taxonomy, I would be Boninti frances.  And that’s because there could be billions of Bonintis but only a single frances.  Since there are more species of Boninti, we could abbreviate the genus, like so:   B. andrew, B. kendall and B. caitlin.  Now for a plant example:  the genus for oaks is quercus.  There are Quercus alba, Q. nigra, Q. rubra and many, many more  species of quercus.

But where did these names come from?  The genus and species names could have been chosen in honor of the plant’s discoverer, or the old Latin name of the plant (back before Linnaeus came along) or the location of the plant, or a description of the plant — among other things.

Next month, a few more rules and we are on our way……..


International Plant Name Index,

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