Gardening Jargon Unravelled No.3 | Why do we use Latin Names?

To the new gardener, Latin names can be off-putting, confusing and difficult to pronounce.  However, there is a good reason why they are used.  Each Latin plant name is unique and is often descriptive. Even locally, the same plant is often called many different common names, and it will have even more names from around the UK and the world.  For example, Common Hawthorn is often called Quickthorn, Maythorn or just Thorn. Additionally, some common names can be the same for two different plants, for example, some people mean Rudbeckia when they say ‘Black-eyed Susan’ and some mean Thunbergia.

Latin names also let us know when plants are closely related to each other and each Latin name comes in two parts – the Genus and Species. The Genus is similar to a surname and the Species is more like a first name. For example, in Acer palmatum, Acer is the genus and palmatum is the species. The name Acer lets you know it is a Maple and palmatum indicates the leaf is like a hand (palm).  There are many different types of maple, so there are different species such as Acer rubrum (Red Maple), Acer saccharum (Sugar Maple or Rock Maple), Acer pseudoplatanus (Sycamore), this last name means ‘False Plane Tree’ as it has similar leaves and bark to a Plane Tree. When a new type is developed or discovered, a third name is needed – this is the ‘variety’ or ‘cultivar’ name, e.g. Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ or ‘Osakazuki’. However, in the interest of saving space, and being less of a mouthful, the species is often dropped, e.g. Acer ‘Bloodgood’.


Roger Eavis