There are two main types of generic name; the most popular is the Descriptive name. This is usually a Greek word which has been latinised. The description may be of an unusual part of the plant, the plant's appearance, its resemblance to another plant, its practical use, etc.
The second major type is the Commemorative name. This is a latinised version of a person's name which was considered worthy of posterity. Linnaeus coined many of the names and he was Swedish, so it is perhaps not surprising that many Swedish scientists have been immortalized in plant names. Botanists from many other countries have given their names to plants, so have patrons, soldiers, garden curators, and noblemen.
The study of botanical plant names can be fascinating. You will find out the meanings of names and plant naming will make more sense. For example:
Davidia is named in honour of Pere Armand David, a French missionary who collected plants from China in the last century.
Dahlia is in honour of Andreas Dahl, a Swedish botanist who studied under Carl Linnaeus.
Fuchsia is a tribute to Leonhart Fuchs, a German physician and herbalist.
Pieris formosa and Primula forrestii. Plants can also be named after the person who introduced them to cultivation. For instance these plants have been named for the famous plant collector George Forrest who introduced many rhododendrons and other plants from China and Tibet.
Dicentra spectabilis (Bleeding Heart). Robert Fortune introduced a graceful plant when he returned in 1846 from northern China. This plant was already widely cultivated and has since become on of the most popular garden plants.
Magnolia wilsonII was discovered in 1904 by Ernest Henry Wilson who was collecting for nurserymen in China. Wilson later brought back many thousands of species for the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.
Douglas fir In 1824 the Royal Horticultural Society employed David Douglas, a Scot, to travel to America's West Coast and gather vast quantities of seed from unknown species including the Douglas fir and Sitka spruce.
The specific names often tell us something about the habit of the plant for example the flower colour: alba = white. The habit of growth can be described as in: horizontalis = prostrate, arboreus = tree-like. It can also define the flowering periods: autumnalis = autumn. Also foliage characteristics are noted with words like: variegatus = variegated. The flower form can be pinpointed: flore-pleno = double-flowered.
This photo of Carl Linnaeus attired in Lapp costume was taken from a portrait by M. Hoffman around 1737. Greek and Roman scholars laid the foundations of plant naming. Their practice of observing and describing nature in detail was continued in the monasteries and universities of Europe, where Latin remained the common language. The binomial system in use today, however was largely due to the influence of the famous eighteenth-century Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus (1707-78). In his definitive works Genera plantarum and Species plantarum Linnaeus classified each plant by using two words in Latin form. This differed from the descriptive phrases that had been in common usage among botanists and herbalists of his day. His system provided a name by which a particular plant could be universally known. Prior to this plants were named by means of lengthy descriptions. Over the years the Linnean system of plant classification has been developed by scientists so that the entire plant kingdom is divided and subdivided into a multi-branched "family tree". International co-operation has been essential in order that the system be reliable for scientific, commercial and horticultural use. There are actual rules laid down by the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (1980) and the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (1988). We have different families according to the structure of the flowers, fruits and other organs.
Genus and its species As described earlier genus is the equivalent of a surname and species the Christian name.
Subspecies, varieties and forms The subspecies is a distinct variant, usually because of its geographical distribution. The variety differs slightly in its botanical structure and the form i.e. (forma, f.) has only minor variations, such as of habit or colour of leaf, flower or fruit.
Cultivars Many plants grown in gardens may be described by their botanical names. There are numerous variants in cultivation, which differ slightly from the normal form of the species. These forms have considerable interest for their variegated leaves or variously coloured flowers. They may be found as individuals in the wild. They may be introduced to cultivation or selected from a batch of seedlings or occur as a mutation. These are known as cultivars a contraction of "cultivated varieties". The naming of cultivars is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. Cultivars named since 1959 must be given vernacular names, which are printed in roman type within quotes for example Phygelius aequalis 'Yellow Trumpet'. This distinguishes them clearly from wild varieties in Latin form.
Hybrids Sexual crosses between botanically distinct species or genera are known as hybrids and are indicated by a multiplication sign. If the cross is between species in different genera, the result is called an intergeneric hybrid. The name given is a condensed form of the names of the genera involved. If more than three genera are involved then the hybrids are called after a person and given the ending -ara. Most common are hybrids between species in the same genus. These are given a collective name similar to a species name but preceded by a multiplication sign. When one plant is grafted onto another, a new plant may occasionally arise at the point of grafting which contains the tissues of both parents. For naming purposes, these graft hybrids are treated in the same way as sexual hybrids. Instead of placing a multiplication sign before the name, they are denoted by a plus sign.
Group names Botanical names of hybrids provide a way of gathering together cultivars of like parentage. But occasionally especially with some orchids and many annuals, such names have not been allocated for groups with hybrid parents. For these group names in modern language and roman type without quotation marks are used.
Name changes It is often confusing and frustrating to encounter name changes in new publications. Long established and well-known names disappear only to be replaced by new unfamiliar ones. There is a good reason for such change. A plant may originally have been incorrectly identified. If plant names change most reference books will include numerous synonyms in order to minimize the problems of identifying or purchasing plants.