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The Genus Name
All of us who garden or grow plants commercially use some genus names in Botanical Latin every day and think nothing of it: Aster, Chrysanthemum, Delphinium, and Geranium. Aster is the name of a genus. A genus is a basic group of plants. Plants in one genus are more like one another than they are like any other group. Aster is called a generic name. Some other generic names are: Anemone, Crocus, Fuchsia and Petunia.
The Species Name
The second part of a botanical name identifies the species. It is called the species name or the specific name or the specific epithet. Epithet comes from the ancient Greek word for ‘adjective.’
By the way, don’t commit the common mistake of thinking that there is a word *specie that is the singular of species. Species is from a Latin noun declension in which the singular is the same form as the plural. There is no word *specie meaning one plant group. Thus, one might speak of a plant group in this fashion: there is only one existing species of dorkwort, but there are many species of tulips. Now a word specie exists in English, but it has nothing to do with plants. It is a term in finance or numismatics. Specie is coin money as opposed to paper money.
A species (from species Latin, appearance, a kind, a sort) is the most basic unit used in classifying and describing a living organism. Individual plants of the same species can usually interbreed and this possibility of exchanging genes is one of the reasons they are grouped together. An example of a specific name in the Aster genus is: Aster novae-angliae.
Note that full botanical names are usually set in an italic typeface and only the genus name is capitalized. The specific part of this botanical name, novae-angliae, means ‘of New England ’ and indicates that this species of aster is native to eastern North America including southern Canada . Long ago, British and European plant breeders collected samples and seeds of Aster novae-angliae and used it to create garden varieties of asters. In England , these plants which bloom in the late summer and fall are called Michaelmas daisies. Michaelmas (St. Michael’s Mass or Feast) is an Anglican and Roman Catholic religious celebration of Saint Michael which falls traditionally on September 29, and, usually, these asters are in bloom near that date.
But, how apt is this British common name? Michaelmas daisy. Well, it is an aster, not precisely a daisy, although some daisies reside in the genus Aster. However, hundreds of different species are commonly called daisies, many not even in the daisy family of Compositae. Many varieties of this aster bloom at the end of August, long before Michaelmas. You decide which name is more apt. Aster is the Latin word for ‘star’ and refers to the shape of the flowers in this genus, to the star-like, radiating arrangement of its petals.
Cultivar and Varietal Names
There is often a third part to a botanical name, in which the particular variety or cultivar or subspecies of a plant is identified. A cultivar is a variety of a plant produced by selective breeding to perform well as a garden subject. Let’s create a cultivar name out of the blue: Aster novae-angliae var. Alberta Sunset. This is—let us suppose—a wonderful, big aster that can grow almost two metres high with flowers coloured a rich salmon-pink, very much like some sunsets in Alberta. This third part of a botanical name may be called a varietal epithet or a cultivar name or a subspecific.
Genera and species are grouped into larger units called families. By convention, most names of botanical families end in the arbitrarily chosen termination -aceae. For example, the Rose family is Rosaceae. The Lily family is Liliaceae. The Iris family is Iridaceae. A few families that were named very early in the history of botanical nomenclature have older-style familial labels. For example, the Daisy family is Compositae, the name derived from compositus, a Latin adjective that means ‘placed together, compound.’ This largest family of flowering plants is named after the compound flowers of its members. Small florets of individual flowers make up large clusters or heads. Other older-style family names are Labiatae, the mint family; Leguminosae, the pea family; and Umbelliferae, the carrot family.
And that’s really all there is to an initial understanding of botanical names. If you know why an aster is called an aster, you will remember the scientific or botanical name more easily. Communication about, reading about, and researching plants, all these activities become easier too. It is good to know the common names of plants, but gardening is more interesting if you can use and understand the botanical names as well. And if, like me, you are a gardener and a word-nut, botany is a trove of many-coloured word histories.
The Shocking Shamrock Experiment
In 1991, botanist E. Charles Nelson wrote Shamrock, the definitive book about the plant long symbolic of Ireland. As research, Nelson repeated a famous botanical experiment designed to test the validity of common names for plants. He sought to determine the exact scientific identity of the true shamrock. On or about one St. Patrick’s Day he received 221 plants from thirty Irish counties, all shamrocks in the minds of those who sent him the plants. But there were four different plants that the Irish called shamrock!
White clover (Trifolium repens or literally in Latin ‘creeping three-leaf’), red clover (Trifolium pratense or ‘meadow three-leaf’), lesser yellow trefoil (Trifolium dubium), and spotted medick (Medicago arabica).
If he had canvassed England, he would have received a fifth plant, wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosella). Common names are appropriate but with this caution. After they have been in use over a wide area for many centuries, common names tend to be applied to a larger and larger number of different plants. If one relied only on local names for plants, much confusion would follow. The marsh marigold whose yellow clusters brighten swampy areas of the temperate zone, has more than 80 local names in Britain, over 60 in France, and 140 in Germany!
Clearly, there is a need for botanical names. Common and botanical names are both necessary, both interesting, both worth studying.
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
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