Deb Babcock: The beauty of botanic names

Latin nomenclature a reliable way to identify your plants

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

Scientific names offer clues about your plant. Here are a few of the Latin botanical names with their English descriptions:

Latin/English

albus: white

aureus: golden

azureua: sky blue

cereus: waxy

discolor: two colors

purpureus: purple

rubens: red

folius: foliage or leaves

angustifolius: narrow leaves

acerifolius: maplelike

salicifolius: willowlike

altus: tall

contortus: twisted

elegans: elegant, slender, willowy

nanus: dwarf

repens: creeping

scandens: climbing

alpinus: of the Alps

australis: southern

chinensis: of China

japonicus: of Japan

littoralis: of the seashore

montanus: of the mountains

riparius: of riverbanks

saxatilis: living in rock

flora: having flowers

phyllus: leaves

densi: dense

fruticosus: shrubby

fulgens: shiny

grandi: large, showy

maculatus: spotted

mollis: soft

platy: broad

plumosus: feathery

rugosus: wrinkled, rough

sagittalis: arrowlike

During a visit to the Betty Ford Garden in Vail a few summers ago, I found a plant called Dusty Miller that I thought would be perfect for my home garden. When looking up this plant in the catalogs, I found that Dusty Miller is a common name for several plants with silvery leaves. It turns out that what I really wanted was Artemesia "Silver Brocade."

If I had asked for this plant by its common name, I might have gotten Centaurea cineraria, Lychnis coronaria or even Senecia vira-vira - all of which are also commonly called Dusty Miller but are not the plants I wanted.

Plants' common names can be confusing and misleading, because many plants share the same common name, and many plants have more than one common name.

That's why you're more likely to obtain the exact plant you want when you use the botanic, or scientific, name for it. To help you out when we write about plants in this column, we usually attempt to provide the plant common name, followed by its botanic name.

The other advantage of botanic names is that they often are quite descriptive of the plant. The first part of the name is the genus (Artemesia), and the second part is the species, or its hybrid or cultivar name (Silver Brocade). The genus might consist of just one species or many (more than 1,000) species. Often, when several plants of the same genus are being cited, the genus name is abbreviated to its initial letter, such as A. lactiflora for Artemesia lactiflora.

The plant's second (species, hybrid or cultivar) name often is easy to decipher and describes some aspect of the plant. In the example of A. 'Silver Brocade,' the second name describes the silvery color and ornate pattern of the foliage.

Variations of species created by gardeners are known as cultivars or hybrids. You'll often find a cultivar name in quotation marks, such as Artemisia absinthium "Lambrook Silver." When two species are involved in the parentage of a new plant, a hybrid is created. In those cases, usually only the genus is indicated, followed by a modern language name in quotations, such as the rose varieties R. "Heritage" or R. "Autumn Sunset."

Some Latin botanic names are so close to the English translation that it's easy to decipher the meaning. For examples the nomenclature azureus describes the color blue, or azure. Purpureus means "purple," arboreus means "tree-like" and compactus means "compact" or "dense."

Sometimes, the species name describes where the plant comes from, such as africanus ("from Africa") or borealis ("northern"). Other species' names describe plant peculiarities, such as edulis, meaning "edible," macro, meaning "large," officinalis, meaning "medicinal" or fragrans, meaning "aromatic" or "fragrant."

Because botanists across the world use the same system of naming plants, gardeners can identify and describe plants from anywhere without confusion by using the scientific names. Also, knowing the botanic names of your plants can help in understanding the conditions in which they will flourish in your garden.

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