Plant names can be very confusing. We use both common names and scientific names when describing or talking about the plants we love. This is the real reason for naming anything. It gives us a way to communicate, to be able to tell each other about what we are looking at.

Common plant names are easiest to use because it is what we are most familiar with. Common names are those we learned as we grew up. They are the names we probably heard from our parents and/or grandparents. It was a way for them to teach us, to identify and describe those plants they loved. It is still a great way to converse about the plants we love. However, using common names for a plant can vary from region to region. Another point about using common names is that many plants have several common names, and many common names refer to several distinct plants. One example of two different plants with the same common name can be found with Adina rubella and Cephalanthus occidentalis. Both of these plants use the common name Buttonbush.


The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature was developed as a uniform way for botanists, gardeners, and horticulturists to talk about plants. This is a system of rules governing how plants are named. Actually, every known organism has only one correct scientific name.

Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) founded the binomial (two name) system we use today. The first part of the scientific name, the genus, is often based on the original Latin or Greek name for the plant. The second part of the name, the species, is in many cases a Latin adjective to the genus. For example, Daphne alpina breaks down into these components ; Daphne – named for a Greek mythological character, alpina – of the Alps or other mountain setting.

Here are a few other common Latin terms used to describe plant and their characteristics:

alba – white

aqua – water

bi – two

campanulate – bell shaped

concolor – of the same color

filliformis – thread shaped

floridus – abounding in flowers

frutescens – becoming shrubby

funestrus – deadly

hispida – covered with coarse hair

velutinus – velvety

vulgaris – common

Using plant names becomes an important requirement when talking about a kind of plant you are looking for. Over 200 years ago, Carl Linnaeus was instrumental in creating a common language for all of us to use when talking about the same plant no matter where we are in the world. The binomial naming system, using scientific names with genus and species is the most universal way to talk about and find plants.

Happy gardening!