What’s in a name?: Binomial Nomenclature

AKA….Plant names 101

For the love of god, why?????

It’s probably the last thing anyone wants to learn about plants – their Latin binomial. I’m not geeky enough to say that it’s fun and exciting, but it does have three stellar things going for it:

1) It will also save you time and energy when talking about plants, because you know the other person is talking about the same plant,

2) You’ll learn so much more about plant relationships,

3) It might just save your life – don’t go eating plants if you don’t know what they are!

Taxonomy, binomials, and how to write plant names after the jump…
Let me explain….

Plants often have several names. What something is called in your area is not necessarily what someone somewhere else calls the same plant. There is a lot of confusion about plant names. The only way to accurately specify what plant you are talking or writing about is to use the botanical name.

A little about taxonomy

Taxonomy is the science of classification. The system we use today is based on the work of Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, the veritable Mac-daddy of putting stuff in order. He used plants as the basic unit of classification.

Plants in a species look alike and can interbreed and produce offspring like themselves. Different species that are alike are grouped together as a genus. Genera (plural of genus) are grouped together as one big happy family.

The binomial system

The two-part name we use to identify plants tells us which genus it belongs to and which species.

eg Cyathea dealbata is the name of New Zealand’s silver fern (one of our national symbols). It’s from the tree fern genus Cyathea. The genus tells you that it is related to the Australian tree fern Cyathea cooperi (plants with the same generic name are related).

The species is dealbata. This descriptor tells you about some special characteristic of the plant that makes it different from others in the same genus. Unfortunately, I can’t find exactly what dealbata means, I’m guessing at silvery-leafed because of the Acacia dealbata.

Binomials are written in Latin so the botanical name can be used anywhere in the world.

Writing plant names

Avoid confusion by making sure you write names correctly. (LPLL does endeavour to do this at all times ~ Ed.)

Start common names of plants with a small letter – silver fern, capsicum, apple, lettuce, manuka, parsley.

Start with a capital if it’s the start of a sentence of the name of a person or country – New Zealand spinach, Cook’s scurvy grass.

Binomials – the genus always starts with a capital.

Binomials – the species all ways starts with a small letter.

Binomials in printed text – in italic type eg Cyathea dealbata, and not underlined

Binomials handwritten – Underline each word separately eg Cyathea dealbata

Abbrieviating – write the whole name out the first time, eg Cyathea dealbata, then follow on with C. dealbata, C. medullaris. Don’t ever abbreviate species names.


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