Botanical Names are Hot! A Love Letter/Explainer

My world exploded around 15 years ago when I began studying horticulture. I was driving along a road I’d travelled regularly but somehow, suddenly, it had completely changed. Where once I’d barely noticed the green blobs of trees in the background, I was now seeing a cornucopia of life. Jacarandas, oaks, pears and eucalypts jostled for my attention as I whizzed by. Each had their own stories, botanical names and beauty. I was seeing the city landscape in a completely new, and incredibly rich, way. Since that day, still so clear in my mind, I’ve never looked back. Learning the language of plants rocked, and still rocks, my world.

Carl Linnaeus is the great granddaddy of binomial nomenclature (the system of naming all living things). Find out more about him here and here. This tale is not about Carl, but is a thinly veiled attempt to encourage each and every TPH reader to see the beauty, relevance and importance of botanical names. Here’s a bit of background before I lurch into fully fledged seduction.

When you look at a plant tag at your local nursery you’ll probably notice a weird looking double barrel name listed on it in italics. It’ll sound and look strange so you’ll stop looking at it when you see the more familiar sounding common name jumping out at you. ‘Aha, jade plant. Yes!’ you say. NO! I say.

From now on you will begin the very fulfilling practice of switching your focus from the (rather useless) common name of a plant to it’s very beautiful and informative botanical name. Yes?”

Every botanical name has two words – genus and species. The genus is like a plant’s surname, and the species is their first name. Take gum trees, for example: Eucalyptus is the genus (surname), of which there are over 700 different siblings who all have their own unique first names (but they go after the family name) like pauciflora, saligna, botryoides etcetera. These plants are different enough to warrant their own special species name, but similar enough to sit under the umbrella of the genus Eucalyptus. Make sense?

Once you start getting your head around genus and species, dive into plant families. Plant families are broader than plant genera (plural of genus) and comprise of collections of plants sharing similar (but less specific than the genus level) attributes. For example, Eucalyptus is in the family Myrtaceae, which is home to heaps of Australian native plants including melaleuca, leptospermum, kunzea and callistemon. All these guys share things like oily, scented leaves and a similar flower structure.

An understanding of plant families is really useful when you get into super-plant nerd territory of trying to identify every plant on your morning stroll. I find if I can work out the family an unknown plant is in, it’s then much easier then to nail down the genus and species.

There’s plenty more layers and detail involved in plant taxonomy but at the risk of you, dear reader, clicking the hell out of this story, I’ll leave them to you to explore in your own time.

Bankisa coccinea. The genus banksia was named after old mate Sir Joseph Banks, and coccinea refers to the plant’s red coloured flowers.

Botanical names are beautiful. Here’s why I love them:

Most botanical names mean something. I love the way it’s possible to gain an understanding of a plant’s origin, form, or growth habit from its name – for example, I know even before I see a Hoya longifolia for myself, that it has long leaves. Because longifolia = long leaves. Smart, eh? All botanical names are in Latin, and nearly all of them will tell you something useful.

Each botanical name is a story waiting to be discovered. Take the genus Tillandsia, for example. Carl Linnaeus, somewhat cheekily, named it after Swedish botanist and doctor Elias Tillandz, who, according to legend, had an aversion to water. Apparently, when he was a student he got so seasick whilst travelling by boat from Turku to Stockholm that he walked home, a distance of around 1000 kilometers! Linnaeus thought Tillandsias didn’t like water either, so he named them after Elias Tillandz.

Botanical names tell stories. They draw clear connections between the past and the present. They speak of the people, politics and culture of the era of the plant’s discovery, weaving a fascinating tapestry of people, plants and place.”

I love that once you begin learning plant families, genus and species, you can quickly gain an understanding of the rich web of connections between all life forms. I love finding out what family a plant is in, which then provides information about its origins, adaptations and form. And then you can think about how things like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant AND deadly nightshade are all in the same family – Solanaceae – One day I want to have a series of dinners based on plant taxonomy – each meal featuring only plants from the same plant family.

I love being confounded when a plant totally bucks the trend. Like Xerosicyos danguyi. Usually, thanks to the structure of the binomial name system, I can work out what family a plant fits into, and then go about identifying the genus and species (a process that fills me with great pleasure). With this one, a plant I found whilst wandering the streets of my suburb, I was dumbfounded. It took a lot of digging to find out it was actually in the cucumber family!? Curcubitaceae! Same as zucchini, pumpkin, squash, cucumber etcetera. So wonderful. Of course, now I look at it, I can see the connection, but damn it took a while to get there.

Banksia oreophila. Oreophila = mountain loving. This banksia is endemic to the lower slopes of mountains in south west Western Australia.

Botanical names are useful. Here’s why you should get your head around them:

Botanical names give you SOLID information. Asking your local plant expert about what’s wrong with your smokebush could mean any one of many entirely different plant genera (Conospermum spp., Cotinus spp., Adenanthus spp. etcetera). If you know the botanical name, you’ll be able to access proper information in relation to the health and welfare of your plant, as well as learning more about its story – where it came from, who it was named after etcetera.

Botanical names are a universal language. You can go to a botanic garden in Frankfurt, Buenos Aires, Lisbon or Paris and the plant names will be the same. Common names vary from suburb to suburb…!

If nothing else, botanical names will make you sound smart. Any self-respecting plant gal/guy will go gooey when you start casually throwing a bit of Euphorbia tirucalli into the conversation.

There are arguments, of course, against feeding the human need to classify everything. I get this. I notice in myself that sometimes my need to name a plant gets in the way of seeing and appreciating it for the incredible thing it is, name or no name. Yet, the more I learn about plants, names included, the more fascinated I become. You know the old adage – the more you look, the more you see? It’s true. Learning about botanical names and their stories, meanings and connections has contributed greatly to my love for plants by providing a structure to enable, and foster, understanding.

If you’re after an epiphany over the Christmas break, can I please take the liberty of suggesting a project? It goes like this: Pick your favourite plant and find out it’s botanical name. Remember it. Throw it into at least three conversations at obligatory holiday barbecues. Then, work out what it means, what the story is behind it, and who named it. After you’ve discovered the plant’s story and history, find out what other plants are in the same genus and family. And on and on. Keep on connecting the botanical threads. Unlike holiday television programs, I can guarantee surprise, delight and fulfilment. And, I reckon you’ll see there’s so much to see when you start looking.

So, thanks Carl for helping me see the trees on Ryde Road that day 15 years ago. My world has never been the same since.

Featured image is of a Pimelea physodes, spotted in the Fitzgerald River National Park, Western AustraliaApparently the genus Pimelea refers to the soft and fatty seed heads of the plant, and species name physodes originates from the Greek word physodes, meaning bellows-like. This refers to the big, fat bellows-like flower.

Banksia ilicifolia. Ilicifolia = leaves like holly (botanical name of holly is Ilex spp.) Get it? This banksia's got leaves that look like holly.