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by Brenda F.

NC State Extension Master Gardener(SM) volunteer in Chatham County.

Plant names can be confusing. Every plant has an official Latin name, similar to a name on a birth certificate. Many plants also have common names, which are like nicknames. And like nicknames, common names of plants change depending on who is giving the nickname and why.

Multiple names for the same plant can lead to difficult conversation and mistaken identities with friends and family. This can also make buying plants difficult. Plant catalogs and nurseries can use a common name, an official name, or both. The name you call a plant may not be the name on the tag.

In the 18th century, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus created the system we still use today for giving plants official names. He used binomial nomenclature, which is the process of giving a plant two names – a genus name and a specific epithet.

Portrait of Carl Linnaeus

Portrait of Carl Linnaeus
Wellcome CC BY 4.0 DEED

For instance, there are many kinds of maple trees. Red maples, sugar maples, and Japanese maples are examples of the common names or nicknames we all use for these trees. But the official names for these trees are different. Red maples are Acer rubrum. Sugar maples are Acer saccharum. Japanese maples are Acer palmatum. Acer is the genus name and the word that follows Acer is the specific epithet. Combined, this binomial name is the official name of the species. Note that Latin names of species should always be italicized or underlined. Plant taxonomists and systematists, the scientists who study the names and relationships of plant species, propose new names and names changes in peer-reviewed academic literature. In more formal contexts, the authority, or the person who named the taxon, is also listed as part of the name. For example, the formal name of red maple is Acer rubrum L., with the L. standing for Carl Linnaeus, who is so well known he denoted simply by the letter ‘L.’ ! The rules of naming plants is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi and Plants.

If you read enough names tags, catalogues, or gardening books, you will start to see patterns in names. You may notice that black-eyed Susan, brown-eyed Susan, and cutleaf coneflower are all in the genus Rudbeckia, and that oak trees are all in the genus Quercus. But you may also notice that plants that that are not related also have the same specific epithet. For example, the herbaceous perennial false indigo (Baptisia alba) and the deciduous white mulberry tree (Morus alba) both have the specific epithet alba. When a plant is named, the specific epithet often refers to some characteristic the person naming the plants noticed, and you can use these words to learn a little bit about a plant you know nothing about. In this example, alba means white. It’s like a secret language!

To get you started on decoding this secret language, below is a list of plant names and their meaning in English that you may encounter. If you would like to know more about the secret names of plants, here are some resources.

Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison

What’s In A Name? University of Wisconsin

Latin Linguistics – A Useful Tool in Horticulture by Cyndi Haynes – Iowa State University

Taxonomy – Plant Classification from the Botany Chapter in the NC State Extension Gardener Handbook

Note – Latin words can be masculine, feminine, or neuter and the end of the word will reflect that. Rather than list every form of a word, keep in mind that word roots that are spelled the same but have different ends (a, us, or um) have the same botanical meaning.

alba – white

argentea – silver

aurantiaca – orange

aurea – golden yellow

azurea – blue

caerulea – blue

caesia – blue grey

cardinalis – scarlet red

chrysantha – yellow

coccinea – scarlet
flava – yellow

leucantha – white flowers

lutea – yellow

pallida – cream

punica – red

purpurea – deep pink/purple

rosea – rose pink

rubra – red

sanguinea – blood-red

suphurea­ – yellow

viridis – green

alpina – alpine

arvensis – field
campestris – field
maritima – coastal
montana – mountain

nemorosa – woodland

palustris – marsh
pratensis – meadow

rupestris – hills

saxatilis – rocks
sylvatica – forest

sylvestris – woods


aestivalis – summer

annua­ – annual

autumnalis – autumn

decidua – deciduous

perennis – perennial

praecox – early spring

semperviva – perennial

vernalis – spring

Characteristics of Flowers

densiflora – dense-flowered
fragans/fragrantissima – scented

flora plena – double flowers
foetida – smelly (unpleasant)
grandiflora – large-flowered

longiflora – long flowers

macrantha – large flowered

micrantha – small flowered

multiflora – many flowers
odorata – perfumed

parviflora – small flowered

umbellata – umbel-shaped


Characteristics of Leaves or Plant

acaulis – stemless

angustifolia – narrow leaves

­auriculata – ear-shaped appendages

capreolata – tendrils

cilata­ – fringed with hairs

citratus – fringed with hairs

cordifolia – heart-shaped leaves

cornuta – horn

densiflourm – dense leaves

dentata – toothed

digitalis – finger

dioicus – male and female flowers on different plants

divaricata – spreading habit

dubium – unlike rest of genus

floridus – free flowering

glabra – smooth and hairless

hirsuta – hairy

humilis – short

laevis – smooth

lanceolata – spear-shaped

longifolia – long leaves

macrophylla­ – large or long leaves

maculate – spotted

microplylla – small leaves

nana – small, compact

oblongifolium – oblong leaves
officinalis – has herbal uses

parvifolia – small leaves

pendula – hanging

procumbens – prostrate

prostrata – prostrate

pumila – small

punctata – spots

pygmaea – small

quercifolia – oak leaf shape

repens – creeping

reptans – creeping

rex – outstanding

rugosa – wrinkled

sempervirens – evergreen

speciosa – showy

spicata – spiked

spinosa – spiny

tenuifolia – thin, narrow leaves
tomentosum – hairy, downy

tuberosa – tuberous

villosa – hairy

vulgaris – common

yuccifolium – leaves like yucca


Area of origin
americana/americanus – North or South America

australis – Australia or the south

canadensis – Canada

capensis­ – Cape, South Africa

carolinianus – North or South Carolina

chinensis – China

japonica – Japan

marilandica – Maryland

nipponicum – Japan

­novi-belgii – New York

occidentalis – America or the west
orientalis – Asia

sibiricus – Siberia

sinensis – China

virginiana – Virginia