Word endings

English indicates the function of words in a sentence by word order. Compare the dog bites the boy with the boy bites the dog. Only the word order is different, but the sentences have different meanings.

Latin indicates the function of words in a sentence by word endings. For example: Canis mordet puerum, which means “the dog bites the boy,” is the same as puerum mordet canis or puerum canis mordet. The word endings tell you which word is the subject (canis) and which word is the object (puerum).

Nominative and genitive cases

The two word-functions you will see in scientific plant names are the nominative or subject function (or case) and the genitive or possessive function (case). This table shows the most common endings for nominative and genitive words in the singular:

masculine feminine neuter m. and f. neuter
Nominative -us -a -um -is -e
Genitive -i -ae -i -is -is

Subject and possession

The nominative ending shows that the word is the subject of a sentence. The genitive ending shows possession, like the English word “of” or word ending “ ’s.” Examples of “Type I” words: Rosa, a rose (subject); rosae, of a rose; Linnaeus, Linnaeus (subject); Linnaei, of Linnaeus; godfreyi, of (Robert) Godfrey; henryae, of (Mary) Henry. “Type II” words: apalachicolense, Apalachicolan (subject); the second word in capillus-Veneris, hair of Venus (genitive case).

Names of species are two words

Specific names consist of two words: the name of the genus followed by the specific epithet.

Generic names

Generic names are nouns that can come from anywhere. They can even be meaningless strings of letters, as long as they can be put into a Latin form and pronounced as if they were Latin. In practice, they tend to come from a few main sources.

  1. Classical Latin plant names, sometimes transferred by modern botanists to other plants: Quercus (oak), Fagus (beech), Pinus (pine), Acer (maple), Cornus (dogwood), Rosa (rose), Lilium (lily), Malus (apple), Ilex (holly).
  2. Classical Greek plant names, sometimes transferred by modern botanists to other plants: Rhododendron (rhododendron, azalea), Narcissus (daffodil), Anemone (anemone), Styrax (snowbell), Thuja (arbor vitae), Hieracium (hawkweed), Myrsine (myrsine), Carya (hickory), Melia (chinaberry), Myrica (wax myrtle, bayberry), Typha (cattail), Zea (corn), Smilax (greenbriar).
  3. Names from Latin and Greek myths, taken over by recent botanists for plant names: Nyssa (tupelo, gum), Andromeda (andromeda), Calypso (calypso), Liriope (monkey grass), Iris (iris).
  4. Modern names made from one or more Greek words: Liriodendron (tulip poplar), Philodendron (philodendron), Chionanthus (fringe tree, granddaddy greybeard), Helianthus (sunflower), Chrysanthemum (chrysanthemum), Eremochloa (centipede grass), Cynodon (Bermuda grass), Stenotaphrum (St. Augustine grass), Eriobotrya (loquat), Thelypteris (woods fern), Pyracantha (pyracantha), Pittosporum (pittosporum), Podocarpus (podocarpus), Cladium (sawgrass), Dirca (leatherwood), Hymenocallis (spider lily), Hippeastrum (amaryllis), Lycopodium (clubmoss), Lycopersicon (tomato), Rhapidophyllum (needle palm), and many others. This is probably the largest category of plant generic names.
  5. Names of famous botanists and other people, put into Latin form: Linnaea (twinflower), Poinsettia (poinsettia), Camellia (camellia, tea), Magnolia (magnolia), Kalmia (mountain laurel), Halesia (silverbell tree), Croomia (croomia), Chapmannia (alicia), Harperocallis (Harper’s beauty), Serenoa (saw palmetto), Cunninghamia (chinese evergreen), Gardenia (gardenia), Woodwardia (chain fern), Torreya (torreya), Sabatia (marsh pink), Wisteria (wisteria), Sequoia (redwood), Forsythia (forsythia), Albizia (“mimosa,” silk tree), and many others. Probably the second largest category of generic names.
  6. Names from languages other than Latin and Greek: Sabal (cabbage palmetto), Catalpa (catalpa), Musa (banana), Sorghum (sorghum), Nandina (nandina, heavenly bamboo), Nelumbo (lotus), Nuphar (spatterdock), Guaiacum (lignum vitae), Hevea (rubber).
  7. Names from other sources. This grab bag includes names of unknown origin like Liatris (blazing star) and cute names like Trilisa (deer’s tongue--an anagram of Liatris), various medieval and modern Latin names like Aquilegia (columbine), and mixtures of Latin and Greek names like Taxodium (bald cypress).

Specific epithets: three kinds

The second word in a species name, the specific epithet, plays one of three grammatical roles: an adjective modifying the genus name, a noun in the genitive case meaning “of x” (where x is the noun that forms the epithet), or a noun “in apposition to,” or placed next to, the generic name.

  1. Adjectives: Magnolia virginiana, “Virginian magnolia” (sweet bay); Camellia japonica, “Japanese camellia;” Boltonia apalachicolensis, “Apalachicolan boltonia;” Quercus alba, “white oak;” Pinus palustris, “swamp pine” (longleaf pine); Croomia pauciflora, “few- flowered croomia;” Capparis cynophallophora, “dog-penis-bearing caper” (Jamaica caper). These adjectives must match the genus name in gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter), number (singular or plural), and case (for example, nominative or genitive).
  2. Genitives: Pinus elliottii, “pine of (Stephen) Elliott” (slash pine); Minuartia godfreyi, “Minuartia of (Robert) Godfrey;” Hymenocallis henryae, “Hymenocallis of (Mary) Henry;” Hasteola robertiorum, “Hasteola of the Roberts.” These genitives often commemorate the first collector of a species. My friend Gerald Smith, who works on spider-lilies, asked me to suggest a name for a spider-lily that was first noticed at Cow Creek Landing on the Ochlockonee River in northern Florida. I created the name Hymenocallis rivi-bovum, “Hymenocallis of the river of cows,” to commemorate Cow Creek, but Gerald took so much abuse about this name that he has changed it to Hymenocallis franklinensis, for Franklin County.
  3. Nouns in apposition: Xena, Warrior Princess; Adiantum capillus-veneris, “Venus’s-hair adiantum;” Acer negundo, “Negundo maple” (box elder); Aesculus pavia, “pavia buckeye” (red buckeye); Zephyranthes atamasco, “atamasco zephyranthes” (atamasco lily); and Diospyros kaki, “kaki diospyros” (Japanese persimmon). These nouns do not have to match the genus name in gender. Many of these names in apposition are names for the plant in other languages taken over as specific epithets.