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
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:
||“TYPE I” WORDS
||“TYPE II” WORDS
||m. and f.
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 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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
- 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.
- Stearn, W. T. 1996. Stearn’s dictionary of plant names for
gardeners. London: Cassell. The best book in English for
origins of plant names. Marks the accented syllable for each
- Coombes, A. J. 1994. Dictionary of plant names.
Portland, Oregon: Timber Press. This book seems to recommend a
weird combination of the academic and traditional pronunciations
- Fernald, M. L. 1950. Gray’s manual of botany, 8th
edition. New York: American Book Company. This is a technical
book about the flora of the northeastern United States, but it
gives the meaning of every genus and species name and indicates
the accent. Reprinted in 1987 by Dioscorides Press, but
apparently out of print again.