For People Who Want to Understand Botanical Latin

This post will teach you a little about Botanical Latin so that you will feel more empowered to use it as a plant lover. After all, it is for everyone, not just the professionals!

Table of Contents

What is Botanical Latin?

Botanical Latin:

  • is the scientific way of naming plants
  • is the agreed-upon way to name plants across all countries, languages, and cultures
  • guarantees that each plant has only one name
  • also helps us to identify which plants are similar so that we can understand them and their care a little better

How do you pronounce Botanical Latin?

Latin is a dead language, meaning there are no native speakers. That takes the pressure off of us and here’s why!

There are no Latin native speakers to tell us whether the way we are saying a word in the correct way. In other words, no one can be completely certain what is the right way so we are all guessing to some degree!

However, if you do want to say a certain plant’s Latin name close to how others’ commonly say it, you could:
Search for it on YouTube and hear someone else say it aloud. (I do this A LOT)
— Check out this episode of Bloom and Grow Radio Podcast that discusses Botanical Latin and some rules for pronunciation

Part 1 – A Botanical Latin Overview for Beginners

Where each word in the Latin name comes from

Botanical Latin contains at least 2 words. The first word is the plant’s Genus and the second word is the plant’s species.

A Genus is a group of species that are similar or related in some way(s). A species is a group of individuals that has the ability to reproduce in nature.

So Genus is the bigger group: Peperomias. Species are the individual types of peperomia: obtusifolia, prostrata, and many more!

How to write Botanical Latin

The genus (or first word) is supposed to be capitalized and the species (or second word) should be lower case. Both words should be italicized when written.

GenusSpecies
Hoyapubicalyx
Pileapeperomioides
Calathealacifolia

Plant names that have more than 2 words

Plants grown in captivity are sometimes cross-bred to produce new species. These new human-created species are called cultivars.

Cultivars are added to the end of a Botanical Latin name, surrounded by single quotations. Cultivars are not italicized, but they are capitalized.

GenusSpeciesCultivar
Hoyapubicalyx‘Reva’
Hoyacarnosa‘Rubra’

Plant names that contain abbreviations (like cv., sp., or aff.)

Some Botanical Latin names will include abbreviations to describe what a word means. Two examples of these abbreviated additions are cv. (cultivar) and sp. (species). This can be helpful if something about the plant is currently unknown.

For example, if someone found a hoya of an unknown species, it could be named Hoya sp. to show that it is part of the Hoya genus but of an unknown or new species.

Another example is aff. which is short for affinity. This is used when a plant is very similar to another known plant, but differs in some way.

For example, Hoya aff. carnosa would be interpreted as a Hoya that is similar to Hoya carnosa, but is not Hoya carnosa. Perhaps the flowers are different or the leaf shape is slightly less pointed.

(I made this plant up for example purposes. There is no Hoya aff. carnosa that I am aware of. Hoya carnosa does exist, however.)

More abbreviations are used in Botanical Latin. I will include a link here to a site that goes through many of the common ones so that you can look up some you may have come across!

Part 2 – Historical and Origin Info for People Who Like Digging a Little Deeper!

History of Botanical Latin

Carl von Linne, also known as Linnaeus, is referred to as the Father of Taxonomy because his system of naming and classifying organisms is still in use today. Linnaeus attended school in the early 1700s to be a doctor of medicine. His curriculum included botany so doctors could understand the use of medicinal plants.

Linnaeus fell in love with the study of and collection of plants. He spent a lot of his time pursuing these interests while working to complete his medical degree.

He began to use binomial nomenclature to better classify, organize, and study his findings:
Binomial means to consist of two terms.
Nomenclature is a system of naming.
So together these words meant a naming system where each name consisted of two terms.

The full taxonomy, or classification, of organisms consists of 9 ranks or layers. You may remember these from science class!

Kingdom
Subkingdom
Division
Class
Subclass
Order
Family
Genus
Species

Kingdom is the most broad classification category. Plants are in the kingdom Plantae. Genus and Species are the two most specific categories of classification. These are the two Linnaeus used to compose each plant’s name (as discussed in Part 1).

Fun facts!

  1. Cultivar is a combination of the words cultivated variety
  2. 2. The second word in Botanical Latin is also called a specific epithet, or a descriptive word. You can learn more about your plant by finding out what its epithet translates to. It likely describes something about your plant.
    • For instance, Hoya carnosa ‘Rubra’ translates to Hoya that is fleshy and red. And indeed it has succulent leaves, earning its fleshy descriptor. It also has pinkish/red stems and its leaves in juvenile form are a beautiful deep red/pink. I have included a picture for you of Hoya carnosa ‘Rubra’ at the beginning of Part 2.

This sentence is linked to a site that provides the English translations for a bunch of epithets so you can know more about your plants!

3. Botanical Latin doesn’t just use Latin. It also includes some Greek words as well as words from other languages as well.

Questions or thoughts?

Have more questions about Botanical Latin? Let me know in the comments!

Are you a botanist and noticed I got something wrong? Comment below or email me so I can update it! 🙂

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