What’s My Name: Plant Nomenclature

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Shakespeare knew names were important. They can tell us a lot of information about something, or someone, in short order. But what’s in a plant name? Well, quite a bit, actually. Plant names not only contain valuable information about the plant, but also give the history of the plant, as well as its potential uses. In this article, we’ll meet the Father of Taxonomy, appreciate why the naming of plants is imperative, and come away with a better understanding of how to name house plants — rather than just calling them “dead” or “alive”.

What’s My Name: Plant Nomenclature

Words by The Sill

Plants 101 Next Article
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Shakespeare knew names were important. They can tell us a lot of information about something, or someone, in short order. But what’s in a plant name? Well, quite a bit, actually. Plant names not only contain valuable information about the plant, but also give the history of the plant, as well as its potential uses. In this article, we’ll meet the Father of Taxonomy, appreciate why the naming of plants is imperative, and come away with a better understanding of how to name house plants — rather than just calling them “dead” or “alive”.
Plant Naming Origins

Let’s go back in time. Before the age of Linnaeus in the 1700s, plants were typically referred to by common names, i.e., the names that most people used for plants. For example, Basil, Dandelion, and Rose are all common names for plants, and are relatively straightforward. Where it gets as complicated as a tangled vine is when there is one name that refers to many plants. Like, what exactly does “clover” refer to? Oxalis species or Trifolium species are good bets, but not sure bets. Fleabane could refer to many species of asters, which are good insect repellants. Plantain could refer to a small broadleaf weed, or to the edible (and may we add, delicious?) banana cousin. Needless to say, there had to be a better way to refer to plants. Turns out, there is.

The Father of Taxonomy

Carolus Linnaeus, the Father of Taxonomy, was born to a poor Swedish peasant family. Linnaeus’ father originally wanted him to join the priesthood (in those days, a way out of poverty), but Linnaeus had no interest in that. A local doctor took Linnaeus under his wing and taught him all about medicinal plants that were readily available in the region. When he was of age, Linnaeus went to university, but had to transfer a few times as the local universities did not teach botany in a formal way. It wasn’t until his plant herbarium specimen collection had caught the attention of Dr. Olaf Celsius — uncle of Anders Celsius who invented the Celsius scale — in Uppsala that he received the funding he needed, and was asked to teach botany at Uppsala University. Later, he became the President of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm and published his greatest work, Species Plantarum (1753), which was the first compendium of plants classified according to his own system of classification.

There were other attempts of classification at the time, with plants being classified to shape or range, but this led to too many names, and did not account for the same species being discovered in new places or completely unrelated plants being lopped together, as well as a myriad of other problems. Linnaeus had a penchant for organization, and had a need to organize things to more easily understand them. He devised a naming system, binomial nomenclature, that used two names to describe a particular species-genus and species. The genus was to be broad, and the species specific—usually an adjective, somewhat following the format of <thing> <adjective or modifier>, e.g. Red maple, Acer rubrum, where Acer = maple, and rubrum = red. He based this system on flower morphology, a radical idea at that time. No one was sure the purpose of flowers on plants but it was hypothesized that flowers could be the sexual parts of plants . After some musing, Linnaeus asserted that flower morphology was relatively conserved among related plants, and that they are the sexual structures of the plants. Turns out, he was right.

Of course, Linnaeus’ friendly demeanor had earned him great popularity, and his lectures were often sought after with his humorous style of teaching and warmth of personality. He loved double meanings and used them liberally in the naming of plants and animals. For example, a species of morning glory is named Ipomoea nil. Nil in Latin means ‘nothing’, which may have you believing that Linnaeus thought nothing of the species. But, a twist! Linnaeus knew that nil also meant blue in Arabic and Sinhalese (Sri Lanka), which accurately describes the blue flowers of this plant. Perhaps blue was his favorite color?

Both Latin and Greek were used for plant naming. Latin was the ‘lingua franca’ at the time, and was the scholarly language used in universities. In fact, until 2012, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature of plants, algae, and fungi (ICBN) mandated that all new species were to be described in Latin. It’s best to use the Latin names if you can. Worried you can’t pronounce or remember them? Well, it may surprise you that you already know a few Latin names, all without the stress of a pop quiz. Philodendron, Pilea, and Monstera, are all plants whose Latin name is the same as their common name. You may even have one in the room in which you are reading this. And there you have it, you didn’t even know all the Latin you already knew!

Post-Linnaeus Plant Naming

After Linnaeus set the foundation, other taxonomists — people who study classification — have improved upon the original classifications. Although Linnaeus’ original classification scheme was useful, it did not take into account complete relatedness among the plants. A notable reclassification happened in the 1960s where Arthur J. Cronquist reclassified flowering plant species, and formed the two groups, dicotyledonous plants (dicots) and monocotyledonous plants (monocots). Cronquist was an influential scientist, and was one of the few in the western world during the Cold War that taught himself Russian, and travelled to the USSR to translate the works of Russian scientists, which were largely unknown to the western world. The Cronquist System of plant classification was widely adopted from 1968 until 1998, when the current Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) system was implemented worldwide.

In the late 1980s, the ability to use DNA sequencing to classify plants was a new technology, and produces a lot of interesting data that conflicted with the accepted Cronquist system. The famous Chase Study rocked the plant phylogeny world, with the use of the rbcL gene. This gene encodes an enzyme called RuBisCo, the enzyme that fixes carbon dioxide, and makes photosynthesis possible for all plants. This gene was used to determine plant relatedness because not only do all plants possess this gene, but it also mutates slowly, giving a clearer picture over a longer period of time of major evolutionary shifts. The resulting data “rudely shattered” the stability of the Cronquist System for a few reasons, one of them being that the genetic evidence did not support dicots as a distinct clade (grouping). Initially, there was reluctance among scientists to accept the results of the Chase Study due to the fact that only one gene was used, but as more genetic data poured in, it became clearer that the Cronquist System needed a big overhaul. The larger collaboration of scientists that used genetic data to determine plant phylogeny became known as the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, or APG.

The APG

Since its founding, APG has produced a number of standardized plant classification models, beginning with APG I in 1998. It revises the classification scheme every five years or so, to keep up with new incoming data. Modern phylogeny includes both morphological data, as well as genetic data in determining species and species’ relatedness. Advanced statistical calculations are involved in weighing the ‘characters’ of interest in plants being compared, such as seed size or gene length. Since ancient times, herbarium specimens of plants were pressed and preserved. Currently, to declare a new species, a herbarium specimen of a plant must be created and given to a herbarium to keep. A herbarium specimen is a pressed sample of a plant in good condition, with proper labels, and documented information on what makes that species different from other species. In the old days of plant taxonomy, herbarium specimens were compared to one another to determine and compare species. In reclassification with genetics, DNA can be harvested from some herbarium specimens and used in phylogenetic studies.

That’s Not My Name

The proper way to name a plant is to use its scientific name and cultivar, if applicable. Genus names are capitalized, species epithet are not. Both genus and species names are treated in italics, e.g. Vanilla planifolia. If there is a natural variant, “var” is used with the variant type italicized and all lowercase. For example, Vanilla planifolia var. variegata. If there is a cultivar (usually a hybrid), the cultivar is capitalized, non-italicized, and placed in single quotes. For example, Vanilla planifolia ‘Tahitian Creme’. Something to consider next time you see this — or a “var” of it — on a dessert menu.

The letters that come after the plant name are of course, those are the author’s abbreviation of the first scientist to formally name a species. Sort of like an artist's’ signature on a painting. For example, Triticum aestivum L. was named first by Linnaeus. Each scientist has their own abbreviation, and updates to reclassified species will have the most recent author’s abbreviation. Turns out plants cannot fully be owned!

Welcome to our community!

Shopping with The Sill means you’re supported every step of your plant parenthood journey. Learn more about our Reward Program.

Learn More

Spring Plant Care Tips and Tricks

As the seasons change, so too do your plant needs. Indoor plants are affected by outdoor changes. We’re sharing easy plant care tips and tricks fro...

How to Care for a Bromeliad Plant

Learn how to care for Bromeliads, or plants from the Bromeliaceae family—home to thousands of colorful and eye-catching easy-care plants.

How Often & How Much You Should Water Houseplants

Water is amazing. Made up of hydrogen and oxygen, it's literally responsible for all life on Earth. Watering your plant is a no brainer, but how mu...

All About Peperomia Plants and How to Care for Them

The Peperomia genus is home to over a thousand species of diverse plants—including popular houseplants such as the Watermelon Peperomia, Ripple Pep...

How to Care for a Peperomia Obtusifolia or Baby Rubber Plant

The National Garden Bureau has spoken: 2022’s Houseplant of the Year is the Peperomia. Learn how to care for houseplants from this popular genus, i...

How to Reuse Coffee Grounds to Fertilize Houseplants

Did you know you can recycle your used coffee grounds into fertilizer for your plants? Learn more about reusing this common kitchen waste item in y...

Easy Indoor Plants That Can Survive Low Light

Floor-to-ceiling south-facing windows sound nice, but what about if your home is not made of glass? Read on to find out how to create an at-home oa...

How to Care for Your Houseplants in Winter

As the seasons change outside, your plant care routine should change inside. Indoor plants are affected by outdoor changes. In this article, we sha...

How to Care for a Norfolk Island Pine

Although a lively addition to your home all year round, the Norfolk Island Pine really shines as a live alternative for a Christmas Tree during the...

How to Care for a Christmas Cactus or Schlumbergera

Learn how to care for Schlumbergera cacti, including the popular Christmas Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, and Easter Cactus. Unlike their desert-dwe...

How To Keep Your Plants Alive While On Vacation

Going on vacation? We’re sharing our top tips and tricks to keep your houseplants happy and healthy while you’re away.   

Our 6 Most Popular Houseplants for Fall

Autumn leaves will soon be falling, and we’re ready to embrace sweater weather and cozy up at home. If you’re looking to bring the warmth and welc...

How To Bring Your Plants Indoors for Fall and Winter

Once the dog days of summer have come and gone, it’s time to bring your plants back inside before the nighttime temperatures dip too low. Here are...

How To Increase Humidity for Houseplants

If you’ve ever experienced a New York summer, you might describe it as humid. The blankety, moisture-filled air that makes morning commutes sticky ...

Fall Plant Care Tips and Tricks

As the seasons change, so too do your plant’s needs. Indoor plants are affected by outdoor changes. In this article, we’re talking about all things...

Plant Toxicity According to a Veterinarian

We spoke to our friends at Bond Vet about plant toxicity, pet-friendly plants, and what to do if your furry friend munches on a houseplant. 

Phalaenopsis Orchid Plant Care

Orchids are epiphytic in their native habitat, growing on trees and rock formations, instead of directly in the ground. The orchid family (Orchidac...

Plant Care for Large Plants

Larger plants are a wonderful way to transform your space into a lush and tranquil tropical paradise. Here’s some things to keep in mind when bring...

How To Move Your Plants Outside for Summer

Transitioning your indoor plants to the outdoors is not easy. Exposed to the elements, outdoor plants can require extra attention and commitment. T...

Five Summer Plant Care Tips and Tricks

As the seasons change, so too do your plant’s needs. Indoor plants are affected by outdoor changes. In this article, we’re talking about all thing...

Gifts for Mom

At The Sill, we celebrate Mom and mother figures year-round. That said, we never turn down an opportunity to surprise them with something special. ...

Tips & Tricks for a Successful Plant Propagation

If you’re propagating a plant by stem or leaf cutting, we have a few tips and tricks you can follow to ensure the cuttings take root and thrive wit...

Petite Knock Out® Rose

Learn how to care for the Petite Knock Out® Rose!  The Petite Knock Out® Rose is an easy-to-grow shrub rose bush that can be added to your indoor ...

Why Are My Plants Leggy?

If you’ve noticed that your plants are stretching up tall or leaning to a particular side, your plant may be craving more sunlight.  After your ne...

Silver Satin

Learn how to care for the Silver Satin, or Scindapsus pictus!  The Silver Satin (Scindapsus pictus) is native to Southeast Asia and has the reputa...

How to Identify and Treat Pests in Your Plants

There are different types of pests out there and we’ll help you to identify which ones are in your plants and how to get rid of them.   It’s a mo...

Creating an Herb Garden at Home

Tired of the frequent trips to your local grocery store for fresh herbs? Here’s some tips on bringing the outside in and creating an herb garden ri...

How To Repot an Orchid

While the average tropical houseplant should be repotted about once a year in fresh potting mix, Phalaenopsis orchids are a whole different repotti...

How To Make Your Orchid Rebloom

Just as we start feeling the winter blues, our orchids start going into dormancy. When spring rolls around again, your Phalaenopsis orchid might ne...

Anthurium

Learn how to care for an Anthurium. Anthuriums are flowering plants native to the Americas. They are known for their brightly colored flowers, wh...

Aluminum Pilea

Learn how to care for the Aluminum Pilea. The small, but fast growing Pilea cadieri originates from rainforests in Vietnam. One of over 200 specie...

Maranta

Learn how to care for most varieties of Maranta. Maranta is the type-genus of Marantaceae, and is named in honor of Bartolomeo Maranta, an Italian ...

How To Care for a Calathea

Learn how to care for most varieties of calathea plants, including Calathea Rattlesnake, Pinstripe Calathea, Peacock Plant (Calathea Makoyana), and...

Fiddle Leaf Fig

Learn how to care for most varieties of Fiddle Leaf Fig! Ficus lyrata is a species of evergreen tropical tree native to the tropical lowlands of we...

Rubber Tree

Learn how to care for most varieties of Rubber Tree! Ficus elastica is a species of evergreen tropical tree native to southern China, Southeast Asi...

Parlor Palm

Learn how to care for the Parlor Palm! Chamaedorea elegans, also known as the Neanthe Bella Parlor Palm, is one of our favorite true palms. Parlor ...

How To Care for a Monstera Deliciosa

Learn how to care for the Monstera deliciosa and other Monstera varieties indoors! Monstera are species of evergreen tropical vines and shrubs that...

Dino Plant

Learn how to care for most varieties of Dino Plant! The Dino Plant, also known as the Selaginella lepidophylla, is an ancient rosette-forming herb ...

Oxalis

Learn how to care for most varieties of Oxalis! Oxalis is the largest genus in the family Oxalidaceae and represents about 800 of the 900 species w...

Pothos

Learn how to care for the Pothos! The Pothos, or the Epipremnum aureum, is native to Southeast Asia. It has the reputation of being one of the easi...

Pencil Plant (Euphorbia)

Learn how to care for the Pencil Plant! The Pencil Plant or Euphorbia Tirucalli is a succulent native to South and East Africa. The plant’s namesak...

Moon Valley Pilea (Pilea Mollis)

Learn how to care for the Moon Valley Pilea! The Moon Valley Pilea or Pilea Mollis is native to Central and South America. Its common name, Moon Va...

Majesty Palm (Ravenea Rivularis)

Learn how to care for the Majesty Palm and other palm varieties! The Majesty Palm is a robust, tropical palm with graceful, feathery fronds that or...

How To Care for a ZZ Plant

Learn how to care for the ZZ Plant! The Zamioculcas zamiifolia – or ZZ Plant — is a tropical perennial native to Eastern Africa that has become pop...

Jade Plant

Learn how to care for a Jade Plant! The Crassula ovata (or Jade Plant) originates from South Africa. The word crassus in Latin means “thick”. The n...

How To Care for a Haworthia

Learn how to care for the Haworthia! The Haworthia is a miniature succulent native to South Africa, and is one of the easiest houseplants to care f...

Philodendron

Learn how to care for the Heartleaf Philodendron! The Heartleaf Philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum) is an evergreen perennial vine, native to Tr...

Bird’s Nest Fern

Learn how to care for the Bird’s Nest Fern! Native to tropical regions such as southeast Asia, Australia, east Africa and Hawaii to name a few, Bir...

Canela Tree

Learn how to care for the Canela Tree, AKA the Cinnamon Plant! The Canela Tree, also known as the cinnamon plant, is related to the culinary cinnam...

Rex Begonia

Learn how to care for the Rex Begonia! Rex Begonias are admired for their fabulous foliage. The cultivar offers a wide range of colors, textures, a...