Nomenclature (Natural Order)


My next-door-neighbour often admires the plants in my garden, and once asked me what the plant with the black leaves was, growing by the large rock. I told him it was Ophiopogon planiscarpus ‘Nigrescens’ and dug him up a small clump with roots which he gratefully accepted, but he declined a label to go with it. “Why don’t your alpine plants have proper names?” he asked. “I don’t know how you remember all those Latin names; I just couldn’t be bothered.” he said, shrugging his shoulders. I briefly explained the logic and reason why giving flora and fauna two Latin names benefits everyone in the world; but he wasn’t impressed!
Some months later he said how well the plant was doing, and referred to it as; “That black thing you gave me!” I didn’t offer to tell him the name again, as I’m sure he wouldn’t have appreciated it.
Every plant, fish, bird, insect and mammal etc, which has been described by scientists, has been given a scientific name, and this is thanks, in no small way, to the great Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus; who introduced his binomial system between the years 1737 and 1753, where basically, a plant was given two names; a genus name and a species name.

The generic name comes first, and starts with a capital letter; the specific name comes second, without a capital letter; e.g. Lupinus breweri. Lupinus is the botanical name for the lupin, and as there are over 300 species of lupin, ranging from annuals, perennials and sub-shrubs, mainly from North America. To just call it a lupin wouldn’t identify it from the other 300 plus lupins; but mention Lupinus breweri to an alpine botanist in Norway, New Zealand, Argentina or Ireland and they will be able to distinguish it from all the others. As the vast majority of alpine or wild plants don’t have a common or local name the best way is to use the only universal language available – namely Latin. Botanical Latin names are recognized globally. Another good reason is that the majority of the world’s plants do not have common English names! The uniqueness of a scientific name is vital as it prevents a huge amount of confusion. The same common name is often used for more than one plant. For example, the name ‘bluebell’ is given to Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which carpets English woods in spring. However, in Scotland the ‘bluebell’ is Campanula rotundifolia, a delicate flower of dry, open ground. If you were reading something that mentioned bluebells, how would you know which plant it was referring too?
One of the main reasons why people are reluctant to use the scientific name for a particular plant is that they are often difficult to pronounce, are unfamiliar and sometimes rather long. It becomes much easier, simpler and certainly more interesting if we get to know the meaning or origin of the Latin name. Rhododendron, Iris, Campanula, Geranium, Lily and Cyclamen are just a few of the scientific names of these plants that many gardeners are familiar with; they have, broadly speaking, become “common” names! Take for example the plant mentioned earlier; Lupinus breweri. The generic name is said to have derived from the Latin lupus – a wolf, because of an old superstition that these plants destroyed the fertility of the soil. In fact the opposite is true, as plants from this genus are valued since, like other leguminous plants, they are able to fix nitrogen, thus increasing the fertility of the soil. The specific name is commemorative of William Henry Brewer (1828 -1910), an eminent American botanist and writer and onetime professor at Yale University, who assisted in the first geological survey of the state of California. Brewer is commemorated with many other plants, and it can be assumed with a degree of certainty that these are native to America; particularly California.

So knowing the meaning and background of the Latin names of plants can often provide information that would otherwise be obscure. Many of the specific epithets are sometimes easy to understand and interpret. They describe habitat, place of origin, colour, the shape of the leaves, number of parts, size, and often the name of the person who discovered or introduced the plant; and so on. Most of these names are Latin, but unfortunately, to confuse the issue, some are Greek, Arabic or Roman.
In the “Portraits of Alpine Plants” page the meaning of the generic name is included where this is known, and becoming familiar with these will open up a greater understanding and knowledge of these beautiful alpine plants

Plant Families
We won’t go into the various orders and subdivisions of plants, as this would take up many pages and would possibly be of interest only to the really dedicated botanist. Suffice to say, that each Order is divided into Families, and these are plants which have many botanical features in common, and is the highest classification normally used. At this level, the similarity between plants is often easily recognisable by the average, (but interested!) gardener. The number of plant families varies, according to the botanist whose classification you follow. Some botanists recognise only 150 or so families, preferring to classify other similar plants as sub-families, while others recognise nearly 500 plant families. Enough said on that matter; let us now move on!

Plant within one plant Family (Natural Order) can vary widely in type; they can be flowers, trees, shrubs or vegetables etc. Take the family Leguminosae (Fabaceae) – the pea family, for example; which has peas and beans in the form of food; and sweet-peas, Anthyllis, Astragalus, Lupinus, Mimosa, Oxytropis, Robinia, Ulex, Wisteria and many others providing the flowers; whilst the clover growing in your lawn is a weed. This is the third largest family of flowering plants, (after Orchidaceae and Asteraceae).

The family Liliaceae has of course, the lilies; also tulips and hyacinth; (other choice flowers for the alpine enthusiast are – Calochortus, Colchicum, Erythronium, Fritillaria, Galanthus, Hosta, Trillum and Uvularia; to name but a few. Whilst the food in this family is in the form of onions, garlic, leeks, chives and asparagus.

Another one of the largest plant families is Rosaceae, which includes all the cultivated and wild roses, along with edible fruit like apples, blackberries and strawberries. Trees and shrubs are also included; like the hawthorn, rowan, potentillia, pyracanthus and prunus. Amongst the many alpine plants are – Acaena, Astilbe, Cotoneaster and Dryas.

In the above examples I have only mentioned three plant families; there are hundreds of others, and should you wish to expand your knowledge further, there are many excellent books on the subject, and of course, the vast resources of the internet!

In conclusion!
So there you have it, my meager attempt to introduce you into the world of plant nomenclature. There is a little more to it than what I have put on this page, but you will have gone a long way if you started with knowing nothing and have understood and got something from this Nomenclature page, and the Portraits of Alpine Plants page on this website. It is a fascinating journey of discovery, and my love and passion for these wonderful plants of the mountains, prairies, forests and meadows of the world has been enriched and expanded by the knowledge gained in getting to know the names, and the actual meaning of the names. I get an overwhelming satisfaction in seeing the seeds of these gems germinating in the pots, their little green shoots pushing through the light covering of grit; and knowing that it is from a seed collected in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho or Utah, in picturesque wild locations like the Big Horn Mountains, Medicine Bow Mountains, or the Laramie Plains. Or it might be China, The Andes, or Mount Olympus. The elated feeling one gets when the plant in question flowers for the very first time! A minute part of a distant location growing in one’s own garden, taking energy and light from the very same sun as its relations thousands of miles away on the other side of the world. I do firmly believe that the closer you get to knowing as much as you can about these plants, the greater will be your success in growing them!


A few informative links that will take you a few steeps further in understanding plant nomenclature.
[Basic Principles of Classification] [Plant Names] [Botanical Names] [Understanding Botanical Names

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