Latin names often offer good indications of the type of plant they refer to or the type of environment a particular plant prefers.
If a plant’s species name includes altus, elatus or excelus you can be pretty sure that it will grow quite tall, whereas a species named brevis, minutus or nanus will be small, and obviously a cyclops or titanus species is likely to become enormous!
Latin also helps us understand about how plants grow. For instance, “Monocotyledons” means a plant has a single (mono), embryonic first leaf that appears from a germinating seed. A “Cotyledon” is the first leaf produced by a seed-bearing plant. The other term you may come across in this respect is “Dicotyledons” – which means a plant has two (di) embryonic first leaves appearing from a germinating seed.
Until the mid-18th century, Latin was the collective language of science, which is why scientists and botanists used Latin names for all the plants they found. It also made it easier for everyone to be sure that they were speaking about the same plant, since local and common names for plants varied greatly.
Even so, confusion and misunderstandings still occurred. The Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus solved this problem by introducing a system of plant names using two words. This was called the Binominal system.
The current system sets out a strict hierarchy of usage in the naming of plants.
First we have the family name written in upper and lowercase italic letters. Family names are fairly easy to recognize since they mostly end in “aceae” (e.g. Magnoliaceae) or a few in just “ae” (e.g. Compositae).
Next comes the name of the genus (e.g. Magnolia of the Magnoliaceae family).
A plant family can contain one or many genus. The Compositae (daisy) family is one of the world’s largest plant families with over 1,000 genera and 23,000 subspecies, whereas the Eucryphiaceae contains just one – the Eucryphia.
The genus can be abbreviated to just the first letter with a full stop after it if the family name has previously been used (e.g. E. Eucryphia).
The species is the second name you see when a plant is named; as in Albizia julibrissin (commonly known as the Silk tree).
Since the genus is a noun any word that follows it must comply with the gender sensitive rules of Latin. So for example you would find: Thymus carnosus (masculine), Prunella grandiflora (feminine) and Geranium graniflorum (neuter).
Derivatives and their abbreviations are written in regular type because they are not actually part of the name!
Note: The system we use follows these rules although, to make it easier for the lay person, we generally put the common English name for a plant first unless its common name is the same as its Latin name.
References: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London; Missouri Botanical Garden; RHS Latin for gardeners, Lorraine Harrison, Mitchell Beazley.