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Scientific Plant Names

            The current system of using Latin to name biological organisms was developed by Carl von Linne, more commonly known by his pen name Linnaeus, about 250 years ago.  (His Species Plantarum was published in 1753.)  This system is known as the Linnaean binomial system of nomenclature.  In this system, biological organisms, such as plants, are given two latinized names, the Latin binomial or so-called "scientific name".  The first name represents the
and the second name is termed the
specific epithet.
The generic name in combination with the specific epithet constitutes the species name.  Thus each species has a two part name or binomial.   The custom of using latinized names and spelling originated from medieval scholarship and the use of Latin in most botanical publications until the middle of the nineteenth century.

      In this binomial system, humans are known taxonomically as:

Homo sapiens
(Latin: homo, man; sapiens, wise or knowing; hence, "wise man" or "knowing man")

The tree species that is commonly known in North America as red maple has been given the Latin binomial of Acer rubrum.

Red Maple   =   Acer rubrum

The red maple is in the "maple" genus, which is called Acer, and its specific epithet is rubrum, which is Latin for red.  Therefore, the binomial name for this species is Acer rubrum.   Of course plants are named with reference to more or less similar plants, for example other Acer, and in doing so are placed into a number of increasingly broader taxonomic ranks or taxa (singular, taxon).  An example is shown below:

 Kingdom     Planta -- plants    (~326,000 species)
    Subkingdom     Tracheobionta -- vascular plants (~287,000)
     Division      Magnoliophyta -- angiosperms, flowering plants   (~259,000)
      Class       Magnoliopsida -- dicotyledons   (~199,000)
       Subclass        Rosidae -- flowers with separate petals   (~58,000)
        Order         Sapindales -- woody, lobed or compound leaves   (~5,700)
         Family          Aceraceae -- (now Sapindaceae) opposite leaves, winged samara; mostly maples   (~152)
         Genus          Acer L. -- maples   (~150)
          Species           Acer rubrum L. -- red maple   (1)

      You might argue that we should just use the so-called "common names" of plants, since it would be much simpler, especially since few people can read or speak Latin.  Thus we could all agree that the name for red maple is Red Maple, this would be an English binomial system.  However, there are problems with using common names, such as:

Since we now frequently interact with people all over the globe, using a myriad of languages, a single, agreed upon name for an organism is a great advantage. Thus the success of the Linnaean binomial system.

      A Latin binomial name (the "scientific name") is italicized or underlined, the genus is capitalized and the specific epithet is usually not capitalized.  However, the specific epithet may be capitalized if it is,

The tree commonly known as Sugar Maple, has the scientific name Acer saccharum, but is should be written as:
Acer saccharum    or   Acer saccharum,
However, sometime you might see it written as:
Acer saccharum Marsh.   or   Acer saccharum Marsh.
The abbreviated name following the plant name (i.e., Marsh.) is the name of the "authority" or "author", the individual who first named the plant "scientifically", in this case Humphrey Marshall.  Similarly, the scientific name of the white oak is written as
Quercus alba L.
here the the letter "L" is used to identify Linnaeus as the authority.  In most nursery and landscaping literature the authority name does not accompany the scientific name.


      Sometimes it is possible to obtain offspring or progeny from crossing plants of different species, for example say two species of Maple (Acer).   Frequently a  ×  (the multiplication sign) is used in a scientific name of such hybrid plants.   The strawberry of commerce is a hybrid, the result of a chance cross between plants of two strawberry (Fragaria) species, Fragaria chiloensis and Fragaria virginiana.  The scientific name of the commercial strawberry is,

Fragaria × ananassa,
with the  ×   indicating that it is a hybrid.  (The proper designation is Fragaria ×ananassa, with no space between the × and the specific epithet, however, this sometimes causes confusion since the  ×   may be read as the letter "x".)   Occasionally plants in different genera have been hybridized, resulting in a intergeneric hybrid.  For example, English Ivy (Hedera helix) was successfully crossed with Japanese Fatsia (Fatsia japonica), and the resulting plant has the common name Fatshedera; its botanical name is
× Fatshedera lizei
   The  ×  before the genus name indicates that this plant is a hybrid of two genera.


            In his book, Botanical Latin, William Stearn, stated the following: "Botanical Latin is essentially a written language, but the scientific names of plants often occur in speech. How they are pronounced really matters little provided they sound pleasant and are understandable by all concerned.  This is most likely to be attained by pronouncing them in accordance with the rules of classical Latin pronunciation.  There are, however, several systems, since people tend to pronounce Latin words by analogy with words of their own language" (p. 53).
      An example of this difference is shown in two "authoritatve" pronunciations of Acer saccharinum, the Silver Maple:
A-ser sak-kar-I-num (American)        AY-ser sak-a-REE-num (British)
and for the David Maple, Acer davidii:
A-ser da-VID-ee-I (American)        AY-ser da-VID-ee-ee (British)
            For more information on this topic, please refer to one of Stearn's books or to an article in the magazine, Horticulture (Fisher, 2000).

Some Terms

Coombes, A.J. 1985. Dictionary of plant names. Timber Press, Portland, Ore.
Dirr, M. A. 1990. Manual of woody landscape plants, 4th Edition, Stipes Pub. Co., Champaign, Ill.
Dirr, M. A. 1998. Manual of woody landscape plants, 5th Edition, Stipes Pub. Co., Champaign, Ill.
Dirr, M. A. 2009. Manual of woody landscape plants, 6th Edition, Stipes Pub. Co., Champaign, Ill.
Fisher, T. 2000. How do you say that? A guide to pronouncing botanical Latin. Horticulture 97:41-42, 44.
Hyman, R., and R. Pankhurst. 1995. Plants and their names: a concise dictionary. Oxford University Press, New York.
Jacobson, A.L. 1996. North American Landscape Trees. 722 p., Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif.
Jones, S. B., and A. E. Luchsinger. 1979. Plant systematics. McGraw-Hill, New York.
Stearn, W. T. 1973. Botanical Latin. David & Charles, Newton Abbot, England.

Last update: November 26, 2014

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