North Coast Chapter - CNPS

Scientific Names

by Clare Golec

Classification systems that put similar organisms (taxa) in order (Taxonomy) has been practiced by most all cultures throughout time. Plants have always been an important component for all life on earth and historically the criteria for classification was often based on the use of plants. A binomial nomenclature system was devised by Linnaeus in the 1700’s that assigned a two names to all organisms (a generic name and a specific name), which universally standardized the name and the identity of a particular organism. The present biological classification further adds to the binomial system, a hierarchical arrangement of organisms from Kingdom to Family based on cellular organization, mode of nutrition or common ancestry (the most significant relationship). It is important to remember that classification systems are defined by people, not by nature, plants and animals seldom comply with set definitions or limitations, thus taxonomy is a dynamic field (a frustrating fact for many a person who has used the new Jepson Manual).

Most all people identify a plant at some level by distinguishing certain inherent qualities such as: habitat, structure, leaf shape, and/or flower shape and color. Many people are further driven to place a name with a distinct plant, but often limited themselves to just learning the common name . Lincoln Constance (“Mr. Umbelliferae”) referred the use of these names as “baby talk”, not in condescending way but in reference to the frequent negligent and/or apprehension of learning and using a plant’s “true name” (hey, it’s Greek to me!). Well I still do a lot of “baby talk” often because the common name is overall friendlier, in addition to being the first name I learned, but I do strive to learn and enjoy understanding the scientific names. Numerous plant genera and species names are based on Latin or Greek, and knowing the meaning can illuminate the qualities of a plant, making names easier to understand and remember. So now for some plant name trivia:

Both of these plants have redundant names.
Daucus carota (“Queen Anne’s lace”) generic name is derived from the Greek word for carrot and the specific from the Latin word for carrot.
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (“bearberry”) generic name is derived from the Greek words for a bear (arktos) and bunch of grapes (staphyle), and the specific from the Latin words for the same.

Calocedrus decurrens (“incense cedar”) generic name is derived from the Greek words for beautiful (kalos) and cedar (kedros) and the specific from the Latin word to run down (decurren) probably in reference to the appressed leaves along the stem.
Calochortus tolmiei (“pussy ears”) generic name is derived from the Greek words for beautiful (kalos) and grass (chortos) and the specific name in honor of Dr. William Tolmie, a surgeon and naturalist of Fort Vancouver in the late 1700’s.

Both of these plant’s specific names are derived from the Latin word for beautiful.
Dicentra formosa (“bleeding heart”) the generic name is derived from the Greek words for twice (dis) and spur (kentron) for the two spurs of the outer petals.
Aquilegia formosa (“crimson columbine”) the generic name is derived from the Latin words for water (aqua) and to collect (legere), perhaps in reference to the watery nectar found at the petal-tips or spurs.

These three specific names are derived from the Latin words for broad (latus) and leaves (folia).
Lathyrus latifolia (“broad-leaved pea”, or you may recognize it as the “freeway pea”) the generic name is derived from the Greek words for something (la) and exciting (thoursos) as the seeds were thought by ancient Greeks to have medicinal properties although this species is toxic to humans (especially young men) and livestock.
Typha latifolia (“broad-leaved cattail”) the generic name is derived from the Greek word for a plant used for stuffing beds (typhe), such as the cattail, this species is the cattail of the Arcata marsh.
Sagittaria latifolia (“broad- leaved arrowhead”) the generic name is derived from the Latin word for arrow (saggitta) in reference to the arrowhead leaf shape.

These three specific names are derived from (hard to guess ?) the Latin words for narrow-leaves.
Typha augustifolia (“narrow-leaved cattail”).
Sisyrinchium augustifolium (“narrow-leaved blue-eyed grass”) the generic name is derived from the Greek word for a bulbous plant of the iris kind (sisyrinchion).
Epilobium augustifolium (“common fireweed”) the generic name is derived from the Greek words for upon (epi) and a pod (lobos) in reference to the placement of the petals on top of a elongated ovary, which later becomes a slender seed pod.

Xerophyllum tenax (“beargrass”) the generic name is derived from the Greek words for dry (xeros) and leaf (phyllon) and the specific name from the Latin word for tenacious (tenacis), a rather fitting name … the plant with “dry tenacious leaves”.
Iris tenax (“Oregon iris”) the generic name is derived from the Greek goddess whose visible sign was the rainbow (iridos) and the specific from the Latin word for tenacious (tenacis), the leaves were used by Indians for making ropes.
Trillum ovatum (“western wake-robin”) the generic name is derived from the Greek word for three (tres) as the leaves, petals and clefts of the stigma are in three’s and the specific from the Latin word for egg-shaped (ovatus) due to the oval shape of the leaves.
Empetrum nigrum (“black crowberry”) the generic name is derived from the Greek words for upon (en) and rock (petros), and the species name from the Latin word for black (nigre), a name that suits this rare plant of the rocky northern coastal bluffs.
Anemone deltoidea (“wood anemone”) the generic name is derived from the Greek word for the wind (anemos), and members of this genus are commonly referred to as the wind flowers and the specific name from the Greek word for triangular-shaped, as the leaves are triangular-shaped.
Geranium molle (“crane’s-bill”) the generic name is derived from the Greek word for crane (geranos), and the species name from the Latin word for soft (mollis), again a well suited name as the fruit has a long beak and the plant is clothed in long soft white hairs.
Delphinium menziesii (“Menzie’s larkspur”) the generic name is derived from the Greek word for dolphin (delphin), the flower spur does look like an arched back of a dolphin) and the specific name in honor of Dr. Archibald Menzies, another surgeon and naturalist with the Vancouver’s Pacific coast expedition in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

Lastly, as honorary plant names were brought up for the two surgeon/naturalists of the Pacific Northwest, how about this combination of their names for a common plant of our riparian areas.
Tolmiea menziesii (“youth-on-age” or “pig-a-back plant”) youth-on-age suits the plant in that the young plants arise from the base of the leaf blade and Menzies was a contemporary of Tolmie.

. . . and you thought scientific names were all garbbly-gook!

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California Native Plant Society - North Coast Chapter
P.O. Box 1067 Arcata, CA 95518-1067
Last updated December 1996