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What can scientific names tell us about a plant?

Jason Irving
5 November 2013
Blog team: 
In the first in a series of posts about plant nomenclature, Jason Irving explains the meanings of some Latin plant names and what they can tell us.

Can you tell what the difference will be between Lamium album and Lamium purpureum from the names alone? Would you rather crush and smell the leaves of Paederia foetida or Galium odoratum?

At MPNS we are keen to emphasise the importance of using the correct Latin scientific names for plants, but these names can seem confusing and alien to the uninitiated. However, not only do scientific names indicate the botanical classification of a plant, the meanings of the Latin (or Latinised) terms used in the names contain all sorts of information about a plant which can hopefully make them easier to identify and remember.


Photo of a page of the Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis
A page of the Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, an Aztec herbal composed in 1552 by Martín de la Cruz and translated into Latin by Juan Badianus.

Learning Latin?

The reluctance to use the scientific names for plants is understandable - to be blunt, Latin is an arcane and arguably a ‘dead’ language, so it isn’t surprising that many people prefer to stick with the common names and find scientific names hard, or even boring, to learn.

This is not helped by the fact that botanical Latin has a whole series of grammatical rules which can seem quite daunting to learn if you have no experience of classical Latin (and even if you do it has its own peculiarities). I have lost count of the number of times I have picked up William Stearn’s great tome 'Botanical Latin' with the intention of learning just one principle of grammar, only to find my eyes quickly glazing over.

Instead I find myself skipping straight to the glossary at the back of the book which provides a long list of strange-sounding words that would not seem out of place in a spell from Harry Potter: transmutatis meaning ‘changed’; ambustus – ‘burned’; Draceana – ‘female dragon’, and many, many more. Looking through this glossary, and others, lets me discover the meanings of many Latin terms which often explain what the plant will look and smell like and even how it got its name.

Lamium album L. left and Lamium purpureum L..jpg

Photos of Lamium album L. (left) and Lamium purpureum L.
Lamium album L. (left) and Lamium purpureum L.

Spotting the stems

The one lesson in grammar I have learned through trial and error is that, although the endings of a word may change, the stem is normally still easy to recognise and can tell you a lot about the plant. For example, in Lamium album L.*, 'album' is given to describe the white flowers of the plant, the common name of which is white dead nettle. The word white can also appear as ‘alba’ in Salix alba L. (white willow), or ‘albus’ in Melilotus albus Medik. (white melilot).

So knowing that the stem ‘alb-’ usually indicates a white flower can help to differentiate one species from another in the same genus. For example, Lamium album L. from Lamium purpureum L. which has reddish-purple flowers (and is known as purple dead nettle). Some other medicinal plants with similar coloured flowers and names containing the stem 'purpur-' are: Digitalis purpurea L. (common or purple foxglove), Gentiana purpurea L. (purple gentian) and Cytisus purpureus Scop. (purple broom).

Sweet or sour

So what about the choice between Paederia foetida L. or Galium odoratum (L.) Scop.?* The clue is in the second of the two Latin words, known as the specific epithet. Foetida means ‘foul smelling’ and odoratum means ‘sweet-scented’. Once you know these terms you can read and understand them whenever they appear in a plant name. In the case of these particular species:

Paederia foetida also goes by the great name of stink vine, due to the sulphurous smell it produces when its leaves are crushed. This feature is common to the whole genus which is named Paederia from the Latin paedor, which means 'dirt or filth'. Although this does not sound very appealing, Paederia foetida is actually widely used as a medicinal plant in India and Asia, most commonly for digestive complaints.

Galium odoratum is gentler on the nose, producing a smell reminiscent of freshly mown hay when crushed, an aroma that intensifies when the plant is dried. It has a long history of use in Germany, where the leaves are infused in wine to make the drink Maibowle, which is traditionally drunk on May Day. It also finds its way into jellies and syrups and I have heard it makes great ice cream. Medicinally it has been taken for digestive problems which, interestingly, is a widespread use for strong smelling herbs.


Galium odoratum (3).JPG

Photo of Galium odoratum (L.) Scop.
Galium odoratum (L.) Scop.

Benefiting from Latin

Hopefully, these brief examples demonstrate that you don’t need to be a linguist to be able to benefit from a spot of botanical Latin.

Learning the meanings of some commonly used terms will not only give you an idea of the plant’s appearance and smell but can also be a great source of information about a plant’s habitat, how it has been used and the history of its discovery. Hopefully, this will make the name easier to remember!

I will explore some of these meanings further in my next post, as well as looking at how particular names are chosen for a plant.

In the meantime, has anyone come across a particularly interesting Latin plant name? Are some easier to remember than others? Leave your ideas by clicking on the 'Add comment' button below. 

- Jason -

* The ‘L.’ and the ‘Scop.’ in these Latin names refer to the author. The author is an important part of a Latin scientific name and should be used to avoid ambiguity because in some instances the same binomial name (genus plus species) has been used differently by different botanists (authors) to describe different species.

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