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Whose Name is it Anyway?

Monday, March 08, 2021

This blog is part of this year’s Roots: Power of the Unseen  theme, which celebrates the complex world beneath our feet and seeks to inspire a new appreciation for the unnoticed, yet vital parts of our ecosystem.  

As a Naples Botanical Garden educator, I have the privilege of sharing the wonders of the Garden with the world. Pre-pandemic, I led tours through the Garden, telling guests how we started as a humble dream and rose to become a globally recognized institution in an astonishingly short 10 years. I guided guests to the James and Linda White Birding Tower to point out osprey, grackles, and herons. I regaled them with the behind-the-scenes work done in conservation, restoration, and outreach both locally and in the Caribbean. But most frequently, I identified plants.

Unsurprisingly, “What is that?” is the most common question I received from guests. Knowing a name can help guests feel more connected to a plant, even if they will never encounter the plant again or never step foot in the region from which it hails. The name makes the plant feel accessible.

When you ask me for a name, I have a choice to make in my response. I can answer with either the plant’s scientific name or a common name. For some, the scientific name isn’t an answer at all. A multisyllabic phrase of Latin or Greek origin will only add to the mystery of “what is that.” But the common name doesn’t always make the plant accessible, either.

Phyla nodiflora

For example, the plant Phyla nodiflora can be known as capeweed, turkey tangle, fogfruit, frog fruit, or matchhead-weed depending on where you live. So, if I give you the common name that we use in Southwest Florida, it may mean nothing to you if you are from somewhere else.

Why is that? Common names are simply colloquial terms invented for plants in a particular culture. There is no standardization for common names. Heck, I could make up a common name of my own choosing for every plant in the Garden! That is the disadvantage of common names.

Scientific names, on the other hand, are standardized through a system called binomial nomenclature. Binomial nomenclature means “two-term naming system,” and is the practice of giving each species a name composed of two parts, which are often Latinized. This system has a long history going back to the 1700s and the botanist Carl Linnaeus. Even if you aren’t familiar with binomial nomenclature, you’ve surely seen this before, or remember the acronym from school: King (Kingdom) Philip (Phylum) Came (Class) Over (Order) For (Family) Good (Genus) Soup (Species).

Taxonomic hierarchy is the order in which organisms are categorized.

Having a Latin or Greek name for every plant may seem overwhelming, but once you understand this system, the opposite is true. Scientists use binomial nomenclature and taxonomic ranking because it is standardized. The usage of binomial nomenclature is governed by various internationally agreed-upon codes of rules, most notably the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. Its widespread acceptance means scientists from different cultures, languages, and eras can refer to specific plants without confusion.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “That’s all well and good for scientists, but what good does it do me? I don’t know Latin.” While intimidating, Latin has its phonetic fingers in every modern language, and you would be surprised at how often recognizable terms pop up. Take the plant Cananga odorata, for example.

Cananga odorata

Discerning readers will spot the word “odor” and deduce the obvious — this plant produces a strong fragrance. (Fun fact: this plant was once the main ingredient of Chanel No. 5.) Can you guess where the plant Coffea arabica is from?

Coffea arabica

It’s probably not too difficult to guess that this coffee plant is from Arabia. Because scientists sometimes use Latin to denote a physical characteristic of a plant, knowing a few Latin roots can help you understand more about each plant you encounter.

Here are a few more easy root names to remember:

If a plant has a defining characteristic or origin, scientists will often reference it. Learning a little bit of Latin can go a long way at helping you decipher scientific names and tell you more about the plant’s nature. Next time you stumble across a scientific name, I hope you challenge yourself to decipher it.


About the Author

Kyle Possai is an Educator II at Naples Botanical Garden. When not at the Garden, he enjoys making music through guitar and piano.


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