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Many of us go to the garden centre and are attracted to buy plants just because they look good. That’s great, at least you are enjoying the plants. Most of us don’t even know a plants common name let alone and unpronounceable botanical Latin name.
Why therefore are the botanical names used and why can they be of use when buying plants?
The answer to why people use botanical names lies in history. Up until the nineteenth century, Latin was the universal language of science. It was not spoken by the lower classes but it was the only effective way for the world scientific community to communicate with each other without any loss in translation.
English effectively has taken over for the majority of the scientific world but it still remains the core classification system used in the natural world. Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus was a keen botanist working in the early 1700’s. He realised that as more plants were discovered, naming plants with common names would get more difficult as names were already taken as well as the fact that common words differ not only between countries but between regions and even towns. This meant that no common language could be used between people to work on or talk about specific plants.
Linnaeus worked to help bring this chaotic world together by developing what is now called the ‘binomial system’ (binomial simply means ‘two words’ in Latin).
Classifications are made at the highest level in the natural world by Kingdoms. Viruses. Microbes, Bacteria, Eucarya, Protists and Fungoids, Animals, Funghi and of course Plants. There are approximately 300,000 species of flowering plant species which exist in the world, 7560 species of which are native to Britain.
Each individual Kingdom is split down again into further categories. The example below shows these categories and the example of a Dog Rose.
This, although scientifically correct is not practical for everyday usage so the important parts to the horticultural industry are the genus and the species. These two categories form the basis of Linnaeus’s ‘binomial system’.
The genus is a group of different plant species which share certain characteristics. It may tell you something about the plant or it may just be invented. It may even be the name that it has been known for hundreds of years but now given a Latin slant. There maybe a few hundred species in a genus.
A species refers to a group of individual plants with common characteristics which can breed themselves. The species name usually tells you something about the plant whether it be colour, size, or where the plant originates.