Making Sense of Latin Names

Make sure the plant you're buying is the one you want by checking its Latin name.
Related To:
Cornus florida  (12) Spring

Cornus florida (12) Spring

Cornus florida is the Latin name for the common flowering dogwood.

Cornus florida is the Latin name for the common flowering dogwood.

If you're in search of a specific plant you want to make sure you get the real thing. You could always ask for it by its common name, of course, and you might get what you're looking for, but you might not. Knowing the plant's genus and species would help you be sure. 

That's because common names vary widely for the same plant, depending on where you live. On the other hand, the plant's Latin name is based on an internationally accepted system and doesn't change. That's why plants and all other living things are named according to their genus and species. 

And many plants have more than just the genus and species names. There are also variety names, which usually are in Latin (or occasionally Greek), and cultivar names, which aren't in Latin or Greek. These names are just as important as genus and species if you're shopping for a specific plant: 

Variety names are subspecies of a given plant. The terms subspecies and variety are often used interchangeably. A variety is a plant that is slightly different from the species in some minor but noticeable way and may some day become a species. 

In catalogs or on plant tags, variety names follow the genus and species names and may be preceded by the letters ssp. indicating a subspecies; var. or simply v designates variety. Cornus florida is the Latin name for the common flowering dogwood. But Cornus florida ssp. urbiniana describes a flowering dogwood that has bluish leaves, pink petioles and unusually large flowers. Variety names are italicized (you may find them not italicized in catalogs). 

A plant that's been selected for its incredible color, unusual shape or some other characteristic and can be successfully propagated may be given a cultivar name. These names are easy to recognize because they aren't italicized and are commonly wrapped in single quotations marks. The cultivar name for coral bark willow is: Salix alba var. vitellina 'Britzensis.' 

So make sure you know a plant's complete Latin name before you order.

Keep Reading

Next Up

How to Buy the Best Perennials

Learn how to get the best deal on perennials—including tips on choosing healthy plants.

Seeds or Plants? What to Consider When Buying

HGTV explains that deciding what to buy is a question of how much time, money, and space you have, and which crops you have chosen to grow.

Temperate Plants for a Tropical Look

Turn your garden into a faux jungle with big leaves and bold blooms.

Bailey Nurseries Tour

This Minnesota nursery is a family affair, responsible for a mind-blowing range of new plant introductions each year.

Botany 101: Best Houseplants for College Life

Find an easy-care plant that truly interests you.

Holly Bush Care

Learn how to grow and care for this traditional holiday bush.

Yarrow Flowers

Grow yarrow for its beautiful flowers, which do more than just look good.

Slow Flowers Movement

Make beautiful backyard bouquets every week of the year.

Slow Flowers: Why Care About American-Grown Flowers?

Move your bouquet into the slow-flowers lane.

How to Buy the Best Annuals

Learn how to make sense of pot sizes and spot the healthiest plants.