Scientific and Common Plant Names

When referring to particular plants (and animals) we may use common names or we may use scientific names.

Common names are names given by local people to refer to plants and animals. Common names may be totally different from one country to another, from one state to another, and even from one county to another. Common names change as new people move to an area, or as old common names fall out of favor for one reason or another.

Scientific names, on the other hand, are unique plant and animal names that are used the world over by people such as scientists, horticulturalists, environmental managers and knowledgeable citizens. Scientific names are the same name for the same organism no matter where on the planet you are, no matter what language you speak. Scientific names cannot be changed except by scientific agreement, such as when scientists convene specifically to debate and agree on plant and animal taxonomy (yes, they actually do this and it's called a Botanical Congress).

It's easy to know and use scientific names; a person does not have to be a scientist or gadfly to do so. Using scientific names when discussing certain plants and animals greatly reduces confusion and misinformation, and makes environmental protection a bit less complicated.

Common Name(s): spatterdock, cow lily
Scientific Name: Nuphar advena

COMMON NAMES

In most of Florida, the floating-leaved plant known scientifically as Nuphar advena is also known by several common names: bonnet, cow lily, and spatterdock. This species is known by anglers to be attractive to a variety of fish. Think how confusing it can be to discuss fishing if the plant's common name varies from county to county and state to state. Think how confusing it can be if you and your neighbors on the lake all have different names for the same plant.

 

It gets worse. In some places, our cattails are called bulrushes. Our bulrushes are their club rushes; their rice grass is our cut grass. And often the same common name is used for different plants.

And what about sawgrass. Sawgrass is not a grass - it's a sedge. And bald-rushes, beak-rushes, bulrushes, club-rushes, lake rushes, spikerushes and star-rushes are all sedges! (In fact in Florida, the only true rushes we have are the bog rushes of the genus Juncus.)

Common names vary in other ways too. Plant nurseries, garden centers, aquarium shops and other plant retailers often assign their own common names to plants they sell. It's easier to sell "heaven plant" than "snot bonnet", a more common common name for the gelatenous-sheathed Brasenia schreberi, at left.

Panicum hemitomon (LEFT) is a desirable native
Panicum repens (RIGHT) is a nusiance non-native

SCIENTIFIC NAMES

A scientific name is a name used by botanists, growers, plant managers and other interested citizens to help avoid the confusion caused by the use of common plant names. Professionals assign a unique scientific name to each plant. The naming system was set up by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus in the 1700s.

What is a genus and what is a species?
Taxonomy is the classification of organisms. Plant and animal taxonomy is arranged in a hierarchy, from phylum down to species:

  • Phylum or Division
  • Class
  • Order
  • Family
  • Genus
  • Species

Panicum hemitomon, at left, is a desirable native. Panicum repens, at right, is a nusiance non-native.

A species is a group of individuals that do not successfully interbreed with individuals of other groups - it is unlikely that they will breed, but if they do, either no offspring occur, or the offspring die very quickly, or (as in the mule: horse X donkey) the offspring cannot reproduce.

A genus is a group of closely related species. Species within a genus can be very similar looking to the non-botanist, or can be very un-similar looking. One species of a genus might be considered one of man's best friends, while another species of a genus might be an invasive nuisance.

Scientific names are usually based on Latin or Greek words and are written in italics or are underlined. For example, the aquatic plant whose common name in Florida is maidencane has the scientific name Panicum hemitomon or Panicum hemitomon.

A scientific name has two (or sometimes more) parts. The first part is called the genus name and the second part refers to the species. For example, Potamogeton floridanus is the scientific name for a species of pondweed. Potamogeton is the genus and pectinatus is the species. Potamogeton illinoensis is a different species of pondweed. By using scientific names, containing both genus and species, scientists can be very specific.

The term Eleocharis spp. refers to all 150 species in the Eleocharis genus.

Naming may become even more complex by further classification according to subspecies and varieties.

TO CAPITALIZE or not to capitalize

In common names, the words are not capitalized, unless a word is a proper noun. In other words, common plant names are the same as common object names: they are not capitalized. Such as: maidencane; bulrush; water hyacinth; Florida pondweed; duckweed; hydrilla...

In scientific names, the first word (genus) is capitalized and the following words (species, subspecies, etc.) are not capitalized. Such as: Pistia stratiotes (water lettuce); Scirpus americanus (American bulrush); Saururus cernuus (lizard's tail)...

PRONOUNCIATION

Almost everyone, professional and layman alike, pronounces the Latin and Greek scientific names incorrectly. Don't worry about it, just say it. Nobody will (or can) correct you! (But if you really want to know how to speak scientific names perfectly, we suggest you read the 600 page book on plant naming: Botanical Latin - History, Grammar, Syntax, Terminology and Vocabulary, by William T. Stearn. 1995. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. And when you know exactly how to pronounce every Latin name, will you please let us know?)

This page was written by Vic Ramey. Data is from the APIRS database.