Botanic plant names

joe-pye ©Janet AllenJoe-pye, but which joe-pye? The botanic name will tell

When we first became interested in plants, we conveniently ignored those names in the parentheses after the "real" plant name.

Gradually, though, after a number of plant mistakes, we began to greatly appreciate knowing the scientific, botanical names of plants.

Why they're useful

Pagoda dogwood ©Janet AllenPagoda dogwood is the only dogwood with alternate leaves, hence, Cornus alternifolia

We were more certain that we were getting the plants we intended to get when we used the botanical names because:

  • Sometimes more than one plant has the same common name
  • Sometimes a plant has more than one common name

We also became more knowledgeable about the plants because:

  • The botanical name itself often gives information about the plant
  • The best references use the botanical names

How to understand them

Asclepias tuberosa ©Janet Allen Butterfly weed: Asclepias tuberosa

These Latin names at first were intimidating, but once we got the hang of it, they weren't that hard.

Of course, botanical names have many, many parts including the family and classifications above that, but for gardening purposes, just knowing the genus and the species is enough.

Swamp milkweed ©Janet AllenSwamp milkweed: Asclepias incarnata

When we get some time, we're planning to study Botany in a Day so we can learn the plant families, one level higher than the genus. We've read enough of the book to understand that knowing the plant families would be useful, but we haven't taken the time to really learn them.

I found William Cullina's explanations in his book Wildflowers to be most helpful. For example, he compares plant genus and species to the more familiar name for humans: Homo sapiens, which is distinct from other species such as Homo erectus (now extinct). Homo is the genus and sapiens is our particular species.

Purple milkweed ©Janet AllenPurple milkweed: Asclepias purpurea

Plants within a genus share many of the same characteristics. For example, all milkweeds are Asclepias. But there are so many milkweeds! Which milkweed am I talking about? For that, I look at the species name. For example, swamp milkweed is Asclepias incarnata, but butterfly weed is Asclepias tuberosa, and purple milkweed is Asclepias purpurea.

Another convenient convention is that the genus is spelled out the first time we refer to it, but after that, it can be abbreviated to the first letter. So for the previous paragraph, I'd actually write "For example, swamp milkweed is Asclepias incarnata, but butterfly weed is A. tuberosa."


This can be the most intimidating part. I lost some of my fear when I was about to buy a reference book solely because it offered pronunciations. I noticed another book on the shelf and looked at that one. It had pronunciations, too … but they weren't all the same! The problem is that no one is speaking Latin anymore, so aside from some pronunciation conventions, there is no real right or wrong.

I've decided to follow William Cullina's pronunciations, though he gives pronunciations only for the genus. For pronunciation of the species, I use Wasowski's book on Prairie Plants. My advice is to just pick a reputable source and throw your lot in with them.

And the bottom line is that we're getting the benefit of knowing the botanic names even if we never say them aloud.