Knowing the Latin names of plants seems like a lot of faff. A daffodil’s a daffodil, isn’t it? Well, yes and no! You certainly don’t need to know (or remember) a plant’s Latin name, but it is useful to understand the scientific naming of plants. It can help you choose the right plants for your garden and avoid expensive mistakes!
How are plants named?
Plants are divided up in different levels, starting with families. Each family contains a large group of plants which have some characteristics in common. As an example, we’ll look at the Lamiaceae, or Mint family. This family includes garden favourites like lavender, mint, salvias and thyme. Many of these are Mediterranean plants, which are aromatic and good for sunny, dry conditions.
The next level is genus. When you look at a plant in the garden centre or nursery, it should have a label with the latin name. An example from the Mint / Lamiaceae family is: Lavendula angustifolia. Lavendula is the genus. Plants in the same genus will have quite a lot in common, but to really know what you’re getting, you need to know the species as well.
This narrows things down even further. Using our example: Lavendula angustifolia, Angustifolia is the species name. Lavendula angustifolia is the Latin name for English lavender. However, Lavendula stoechas (same genus but different species) is French lavender. That’s one reason why it’s useful to understand Latin names: French lavender isn’t as tough as the English lavender, so you might be disappointed if you bought it by mistake.
Finally, many garden plants have been specially bred. For example, they might have bigger flowers, variegated leaves or a stronger scent. If a plant has been bred (rather than occuring naturally in the wild) it will also have a cultivar name. For example, Lavendula angustifolia ‘Hidcote‘ is a really nice, compact lavender – good for a small space. Lavendula angustifolia ‘Nana Albert’ has white flowers whereas Lavendula angustifolia ‘Miss Katherine’ grows much larger.
So, if you want to know exactly what you’re getting, check you have the correct genus, species and cultivar. Don’t ever assume one plant will be the same as another in the same genus, or even the same species.
If, for example, you like lavender and want something similar, or want a plant which might do well in the same conditions, it’s worth looking at other plants in the same genus or family. This can be a great way of discovering new plants.