What’s in a Name? Understanding Botanical Nomenclature

We’re introducing the first installment of the Herbarium department, where we’ll explain scientific names of plants and other common botanical terms, such as cultivar vs. variety, to help gardeners better navigate seed catalogs.

  • Purple coneflowers are in the Asteraceae family.
    Photo by istock/andipantz
  • The golden-colored Ozark yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa) prefers dry, rocky soil, similar to that found in its native Ozark hills of Missouri and Arkansas.
    Photo from www.RareSeeds.com
  • Seeds of Echinacea purpurea and other Echinacea varieties do well with a period of cold conditioning called “stratification” before planting.
    Photo from www.RareSeeds.com
  • Native to the eastern half of the United States and Canada, Echinacea pallida is a no-fuss plant that attracts pollinators.
    Photo from www.RareSeeds.com
  • Echinacea is widely used as an immune stimulant.
    Photo from www.RareSeeds.com
  • Tennessee purple coneflower (Echinacea Tennesseensis) is almost extinct in the wild, and its flowers are more star-shaped than other Echinacea species.
    Photo from www.RareSeeds.com
  • Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’ has white, daisy-like flowers from early summer into early autumn.
    Photo by Fotolia/john anderson

Confusing as it is, plants generally have many names, both common and scientific (sometimes called Latin names because of the principal language from which they’re derived). They can also share the same name depending on regional and cultural differences. For example, one group of coneflowers is distinguished by the adjective “purple.” But not all purple coneflowers are actually purple coneflowers. Some are black Samson, or pale purple coneflower, or narrow-leaf coneflower, or Tennessee coneflower, or Topeka purple coneflower — and when you investigate this group of closely related plants, you discover that not all of them have purple flowers! In some cases, a single purple coneflower has multiple common names — black Samson and narrow-leaf coneflower are one and the same. What a mess, right? And I could go on.

In part because it’s human to do so, and in part because it was an intellectual exercise, early philosophers and statesmen in Rome took it upon themselves to provide relatively descriptive names for common plants using Latin. This was fortuitous at the time because Latin was a language known across cultures (think Roman Empire here), and so it helped folks with different cultural and linguistic traditions better understand what plants were being discussed no matter the source of the discussion. This discussion likely pertained more to the curious naturalists of the day than herbal practitioners, farmers, and gardeners.

Fast forward through the fall of the Roman Empire and quite a bit of additional history, and we come to the 18th century, which is smack-dab in the middle of the Age of Enlightenment — a time in Europe when science and philosophy radically changed how folks looked at the universe and all things in it. Not the least significant new concept of the time was that things in the universe could be ordered, categorized, and rationally organized. In this swirling milieu of thought, Carl Linnaeus churned and churned with his keen interest in plant sexual reproduction and descriptive botany, ultimately developing an organism classification system that was both revolutionary for the time and able to withstand the test of time. His fundamental scheme is still in play today.

Sometimes called the “Father of Taxonomy,” Linnaeus gave us the fundamentals of our two-part scientific naming scheme for virtually all organisms. And he chose to use Latin (sometimes influenced by Greek) because it was the “universal” language at the time, at least in educated circles. The scientific names of plants contain two parts that help us identify a plant: the genus, which is usually a noun, and the species (or specific epithet), which is generally an adjective that helps describe the noun. So let’s take a look at some of the plant taxonomy for the purple coneflowers mentioned above.

Understanding Botanical Nomenclature

The true purple coneflower might arguably be the plant called Echinacea purpurea. It’s not too hard to imagine the general meaning of the species name — purple — but what about the genus name, Echinacea? Well, without going into the full etymology of the word, it essentially means “prickly” — literally, like a hedgehog. And that descriptor comes from the mature inflorescence (flower head), which in coneflowers is a collection of hundreds of individual flowers born together. It’s prickly and gets pricklier as it matures into a seed head.

So, what about pale purple coneflower? Its binomial, Echinacea pallida, lets us know that it’s in that group of coneflowers with prickly flowers, but its purple petals are pale (pallida). Narrow-leaf coneflower is universally known as Echinacea angustifolia — narrow-leaved. Certainly it helps to have spent some time with plant taxonomy to know where these species names come from offhand, but you get the point. One of my favorite Echinacea species is the yellow coneflower, also known as Echinacea paradoxa. Here we have a prickly coneflower with yellow petals that’s most definitely not a member of the black-eyed Susan grouping, nor the Mexican hat grouping. It’s definitely a purple coneflower, except its petals are yellow — thus it’s a paradox compared with the rest of its group. Now don’t get all excited and tell me that there are orange and white and other colored purple coneflowers too, because you are absolutely correct. And most of these are Echinacea purpurea individuals that have been developed into named cultivars that are vegetatively propagated for sale to the perennial garden industry.

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