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Plant names explained

Plant names explained | Copyright GreenPlantSwap Ltd

One of the biggest barriers in gardening is knowing what you've got. If you don't know the plant name, you can't look it up to find out what it needs. And if you use a common name, which may be shared by quite different plants, it's possible you'll buy or look up the wrong plant altogether.

This is why GreenPlantSwap and most nurseries prefer to use proper botanical names, which are unique identifiers for each plant and indicate the parentage, or group of plants, to which it belongs.

This international system of plant naming was developed by Carl Linnaeus (above), a Swedish botanist, in the 18th century. Today it is enshrined as the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature and maintained by botanists around the world.

So plants can be better described and understood, the Plant Kingdom is divided into divisions, then classes, then orders of plants. Within each order are similar families of plants. Within each family are similar plant genera. And within each genus are similar species. The botanical name of each plant is a binomial (two-part) name that refers to the genus and the species.

All the plants on GreenPlantSwap are indexed from the family level. You will not normally see family names on plant labels, but may see them referred to in plant descriptions. They have names that end in -eae, such as Araceae or Pelliaceae. We index 330+ of these plant families from around the world and show which genera are within each. However, these plant family names are just for reference. You do not need to use them when listing or trading plants on GreenPlantSwap.

Plant genera

Plant genus names ('genera' is the plural) are the key building block for understanding plants. Each plant genus is a name given to a group of plants with similar structural characteristics (e.g. Hebe, Hosta or Acer).

The genus name may come from literature, mythology, a place, a person, or what the plant resembles. Many plant names are based on original Greek or Latin words.

Importantly, the genus name is always the first word in any botanical plant name. So, if you know the genus, you can almost always find the individual plant, either in our Plant Finder or through Google Images. If you get to know, or at least have a sense for, the features of each genus you're well on your way to identifying individual plants. We have 2,300+ plant genera in the GreenPlantSwap Plant Finder.

Quickest way to search for a genus is via the search box on the main Plant Finder page and at the top of every plant record. Just enter the first 3 letters of the genus name and select the name from the drop down list. The results you see will have both the genus record and all the plant records in that genus. Alternatively you may browse the handy A-Z of genus names on the main Plant Finder page. This is particularly useful if you are not sure how to spell a genus name.

Species, varieties and cultivars

Individual plants within a genus are identified by the second part of the overall plant name.

Sometimes the plant is a species e.g. Acer palmatum (Acer = the genus; palmatum = the species). In others it might be a variety, or subdivision, of a species e.g. Acer palmatum var. dissectum (var. dissectum = the variety).

Species and variety names are usually Latin (though English names are now allowed) and italic, where italics are used. They often refer to where the plant is native, who discovered it or its physical appearance.

Varieties are determined by naturally occurring distinctions or mutations that give the plant different physical attributes, such as the colour of the flowers or leaves, or differences in how it grows.

Cultivars are plants that once created require asexual, vegetative reproduction, such as stem cuttings, to keep their form e.g. Hosta 'Dinner Jacket' ('Dinner Jacket' = the cultivar). These plants can only be reproduced by human intervention and the name often refers to their physical appearance or the person who created them. The cultivar name always appears in Roman text within single quotes.

Hybrids

Lastly hybrids are created by cross-pollinating different types of plant and and are indicated by the use of an 'x'. In hybrids of plants from different genera the 'x' is put before the two names e.g. x Heucherella (cross between Heuchera and Tiarella).

In hybrids of plants within the same genus, the 'x' appears between the two names e.g. Platanus x acerifolia (the London plane).

We have 19,500+ individual plants in the GreenPlantSwap Plant Finder and this is being continuously expanded. If you would like us to create a new plant record, you may make a request through the List my plant page.

Read more about listing plants on GreenPlantSwap.

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