plants and their names

what name was it...?

I had a conversation with a lady recently who was asking about a particular plant. The problem is… she may as well said can I have a Donegan…. Bear with me…. I’m trying not to make this confusing, because it confused me, at first, when it was first explained to me… hmmm 😉 Anyhow.

She asked for the ‘common name’, Chinese Lantern [another post maybe] but there are some varying names of which it could have been. It’s a bit like being in America and you saying I’m Irish and then you are asked do you know the O’Flaherty’s. What…?! Which ones? You know what I mean. In this case there were two immediate answers – the Physalis alkekengi or the Crinodendron Hookeriannum. Both commonly known as ‘lantern’ except – one is low growing [about 6″ tall] and spreads like wildfire – the latter is a bush that will grow to 20′ tall. Slight difference?



The problem is when one goes outside of Ireland; even in England a plant may have 4 or 5 common names. And so the botanical or Latin language is used. It is an international language for plants. This allows me to ring Italy, Holland or France for example and they know exactly what I am looking for.

But there is a format for how the names are positioned. For example Golden Privot: Ligustrum Ovalifolium ‘aureum’ – which loosely translates as Privot – oval foliage – golden. Or Horse Chestnut is Aesculus Hippocastanum. However it is the order of how the names are positioned that helps the most.

The first word is the genus [or surname eg Donegan/ Aesculus]

The second is the species [first name eg. Peter/Hippocastanum]

The cultivar or variety is the third name in this case we may have Aesculus Hippocastanum  ‘Baumanii’

7 replies
  1. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    I love plant names and spent my year at Longwood working with the curator and verifying names for their database – I really am a plant name geek. So in that spirit I have to point out that the species name always starts with a lower, not upper, case. And genus & species are always italicised. Sorry mate, but I’m also a pedantic saddo. 🙂

  2. Peter Donegan MI Hort
    Peter Donegan MI Hort says:

    A Chara Debbie,

    you are spot on and I’m so glad you made this comment – however as you can gather from the style of the article ‘cofusus with big.plant.names.icus’ wasn’t on the list for this post – moreso a general explantation.
    Whilst apology is therefore due to the purist botanist one is equally due to the many US citizens and also members of the O’ Flaherty family if there was any offence caused.

    happy monday 😉

  3. M Buckley
    M Buckley says:

    Such a useful (and fashionable) post.

    I spent an enjoyable afternoon listening to talks on the naming of plants and the history of botany on Saturday.

    Anna Pavord almost reduced the assembly to a flood of emotion on the subject of science, order and the naming of plants. Post-colonialist domination of Latin was discussed at length.

    Lewis Glucksman Memorial Symposium

    Many people find the discipline of botany quite demanding.

    However, as you present it, it brings clarity and communication.

    Many thanks.

  4. Peter Donegan MI Hort
    Peter Donegan MI Hort says:

    A Chara M Buckley,

    thank you so much

    I was at Trinity College on saturday – in fact its a post already written for next wednesday 26th…

    I have to say I really liked Matthew Jebb the first speaker but I will agree entirely with you regarding Anna Pavord – in my opinion she did bring the old world into something ‘non-boring’ by giving it a relation to todays world 🙂

    you are more than welcome and it is great to know that this post [in particular] was appreciated

    slán go foill

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Ranunculaceae are a genus of more than 200 species of evergreen and deciduous mix of [not always but generally speaking] climbing plants, as one would […]

  2. […] akin to asking for ‘a Donegan’ and taking the one you thought looked like me – but it’s not ‘Donegan Peter’…. I hope that makes […]

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