How Do Plants Get their Scientific Names?

Plant names are given to plants by botanists or horticulturists who discover, classify and/or breed those plants.

Most plant names are chosen for some logical reason, and if you look closely at a name you will usually find it tells you something about the plant. By getting to know the meanings of plant names, you can gradually improve the ease with which you can remember names and the plants which they are attached to.


While the pronunciation of plant names may vary from place to place, botanical names are Latin and are very precise on matters of grammar.  
Names of orders and sub orders are based on the stem of the name of a family from that particular order or sub order with the ending "ales" for orders and "ineae" for the sub orders.  There are only a few exceptions, e.g. Order Proteales (from family Proteaceae). Usually the names of families, sub families, tribes and sub tribes are formed by adding a specified suffix to the stem.

The name of a genus is a noun (or sometimes an adjective) which can usually be taken from any source.

The name of a species is a binomial i.e. it consists of two words, the first being the generic name and the second a specific epithet (species name).  The specific epithet may be taken from any source, and often describes a particular characteristic about the species (e.g. spinose   spiny, paludosus   growing in swampy places, citriodora   lemon scented, rubra   red, pendular   weeping, palmatum - palm-like etc.)

The main categories or divisions below species are:

  •     Subspecies (which are divided into varieties)
  •     Varieties (which are divided into forms)

You Sometimes See Conflicting Names

Occasionally, you may discover that the same plant appears to have two different scientific names. Sometimes this may be because one book you read is older, containing an older name; and another reference is more recent with an updated and changed name.

Sometimes both remain in use; with some experts using one; and other experts using the other.
If there is a good argument for both being valid, whether in the past or present, the two names may be considered to be synonyms (i.e. they are interchangeable because they refer to the same plant species). A plant synonym may sometimes be written using the abbreviation “syn.” in brackets after the plant name e.g. Protea aurea (syn. P. longifolia).

There are a number of official bodies, each with arguable credibility, that control the naming of Proteaceae species and, in some cases, other plants.

These various bodies may authorise new names when a new species or cultivar is encountered and, sometimes, they may authorise a change in an existing plant name. These bodies do largely agree with each other, but not always.

You may sometimes encounter what appears to be a conflict in plant naming within literature that was written in the past or which was written by plant experts who are not fully up to date with taxonomic changes. Conflicts may also arise where one plant naming authority opposes a name alteration that is accepted by another.

For Proteaceae plants, these various authorities may include:

  • The International Proteaceae Register and Checklist - a body that operates out of South Africa and which deals with all Proteaceae plants that are not indigenous to Australia.
  • The Australian Cultivar Registration Authority - an Australian based body dealing with all plants indigenous to Australia, including Proteaceae.

  • The International Botanical Congress (IBC) - manages the naming of plants among botanists around the world.

  • The International Horticultural Congress - manages the naming of plants among horticulturists internationally, and sometimes comes into conflict with the IBC.

Herbariums are centres where plant naming is managed. These are often attached to botanic gardens and tend to operate with authority from their government to manage plant naming in that jurisdiction.

Major horticultural bodies such as the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK, or nursery industry associations, also have a great deal of influence upon what plant names are used and promoted within their area of influence. Sometimes these bodies might not adopt changes to plant names made by academics.

Despite the apparent potential for confusion in the world of plant names there is, in reality, a great deal of agreement among the majority of these authorities most of the time.  It is however important to appreciate that there can be, and always will be, occasional conflicts in naming plants. If you are able to appreciate these difficulties, then it ought to mean that one should never be too pedantic about the subject.

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