plant label at botanic gardens
Sometimes a plant's botanic name describes a very specific and detailed part of its structure that is only of interest to taxonomists (the people who decide what plants are called).

A lot of the time, a plant's botanic name gives us very useful information about what it looks like, and behaves like, or the place it comes from. This is handy for gardeners as it can give us a guide to its appearance, preferences, and where to plant it.

Even if, like most of us, you didn't do Latin or Greek at school, it's easy to pick up a few of the main words. You'll begin to recognise them after a while - and before long you'll be speaking Plant!

Decoding the names

Starting with the basics

the sun-like flower of Helianthus
  • flower = anthus / anthos / anthemum; and of course flora

    Chrysanthemum = gold-flower.
    Agapanthus = love-flower.
    Helianthus = sun-flower (Helios was the Sun God in Greek mythology)
  • leaf = phylla / phyllum / phyllus, and folia.

    Spathiphyllum, the peace lily = broad-sword-leaf, as the peace lily has broad sword-shaped leaves.
    Lomandra longifolia has long leaves.
    Calathea orbifolia has rounded, or orb-shaped, leaves; Calathea lancifolia has lance shaped leaves.
    Banksia ericifolia has leaves like the Erica genus of heathers; Backhousia myrtifolia has leaves like myrtle.


What colour is it?

  • white = alba / album / albo , leuco / leuca, nivea / nivalis

    Azalea alba magnifica is a white azalea. Leucadendron, a South African protea relative, means white-tree.
    Nivea and nivalis come from the Latin word for snow, like Brachyscome nivalis, the white-flowered native snow daisy
  • the gold flowers of Chrysocephalum
  • yellow = lutea , flava/flavum , sulphurea

    Think of Rosa banksiae Lutea, the yellow climbing rose; Hymenosporum flavum, the golden native frangipani; and Cosmos sulphureus, flowering a glowing shade of orange-yellow
  • gold = aurea / aureum, chrys

    Thuja aurea nana has gold-coloured foliage which gives it the common name of golden biota.
    Chrysocephalum, meaning 'gold-head' is commonly called yellow buttons; and of course chrysanthemum, the golden flower of the Japanese monarchy.
the silver leaves of Dichondra argentea
  • silver = argentea / argenteum

    Dichondra argentea 'Silver Falls' is a popular silver trailing plant. The country of Argentina gets its name from the Latin for 'Land of Silver'
  • pink = rosea , rubra/rubrum/ruber

    Dipladenia sanderi Rosea is a climber with pink flowers; Cordyline rubra has reddish-pink leaves.
  • red = coccinea

    As in Ixora coccinea Flame of the Woods, and the bright red native Banksia coccinea, scarlet banksia
  • the deep purple leaves of Cordyline australis atropurpurea
  • blood red = sanguinea
    Rumex sanguineus is better-known as red-veined sorrel for the blood-red veins running through the leaves.
  • rust red = ferrugo

    The word 'ferrous' means rusty, and the chemical symbol for iron is Fe from the same word. Our native rusty bloodwood gum is Corymbia ferruginaea
  • purple = purpurea, usually a dark wine-purple.

    Azalea purpurea Shiraz is the purple-leaved azalea.
    Atropurpurea is very dark purple or black purple, so Cordyline atropurpurea has very dark wine-purple leaves.
the blue berries of Alpinia caerulea
  • blue = caerulea.
    The native ginger Alpinia caerulea has bright blue berries; the native blue flax lily Dianella caerulea has deep blue flowers.
    Fans of The Devil Wears Prada will remember Meryl Streep's speech on the importance of cerulean as a fashion colour!
  • blue-green = glauca , cyan

    Festuca glauca has metallic-looking blue-green grassy leaves, hence its common name of blue fescue. Eucalyptus glaucescens, the tingiringi gum, has silvery-bluish-green leaves.
    Centaurea cyanus is the blue cornflower.


What size or shape is it?

the ground-hugging habit of Acalypha reptans Stephie
  • short = nana , humilis , pumila , compacta.

    Plants such as Nandina domestica nana and Brunfelsia compacta are smaller all round than the regular species form. Nana means dwarf in latin.
    Pumila also comes from a word that also means dwarf; Ficus pumila has very small leaves in comparison to other Ficus, and is a flat, clinging vine.
    Kalanchoe humilis (like humility) is a low-growing ground-covering succulent.
  • creeping, lying flat = procumbens, repens, reptans

    Acalypha reptans 'Stephie', Dichondra repens and Ajuga repens all grow very flat to the ground; as does Fuchsia procumbens a creeping vine form of fuchsia.
  • climbing = scandens

    The native golden guinea vine Hibbertia scandens climbs - though it will also creep along the ground, scramble through other plants, or form itself into a hedge, it's very versatile!
  • the bushy habit of Westringia fruticosa
  • shrubby, bushy = fruticosa
    Westringia fruticosa is well named and a very popular native shrub.
  • shrubby, tree-like = arborescens

    we get the word arboretum, a tree collection, from the same origin.
  • upright = fastigiata , stricta

    Buxus sempervirens fastigiata is a very upright vertical form of box hedging. Bonus element here: Semper = always, as in the Marines' motto 'Semper Fidelis', always faithful. Virens = green, like the artist paint colour viridian, so this plant's name Buxus sempervirens fastigiata means box-ever-green-upright. Very informative!


What kind of leaves or flowers does it have?

the large flowers of Magnolia grandiflora
  • large = macro , grandi

    Magnolia grandiflora is the magnolia with big flowers.
    Hydrangea macrophylla is the hydrangea with big leaves
  • small = micro , parvi

    You can probably work out by now that Buxus microphylla is the box hedge with small leaves, micro-phylla
  • edible = edulis, oleracea, sativa

    Carpobrotus edulis, the pigface, is a bushtucker food. Brassica oleracea is the garden cabbage family. Pisum sativum is the garden pea.
  • the fragrant flowers of Osmanthus fragrans
  • double/full = plena / pleno

    Serissa Flore Pleno has small white double flowers
  • scented = odorata , fragrans , foetida

    Osmanthus fragrans, the tea olive, has blossoms which smell of peach yogurt.
    Viola odorata - sweet violet - is world famous for its fragrant flowers for perfumes; Viburnum odoratissimum means the most-fragrant viburnum, according to its name.
    Foetida is reserved for plants which don't smell quite so nice - though Serissa foetida is perfectly pleasant!
  • shiny= nitidus

    The glossy light-reflecting leaves of the bird's nest fern Asplenium nitidus give it its botanic name
  • the woolly leaves of Stachys lanata
  • hairy = hirsuta , villosa , pubescens

    Pultenaea villosa is known as the hairy bush pea. No sniggering at the back.
  • woolly = lanata

    Stachys lanata, the lamb's ear, has soft velvety leaves covered in fine silver hairs. Lanolin, an oil that comes from sheep's fleece, means wool-oil.
  • soft = mollis

    Acanthus mollis is the soft-leaf acanthus; as you can imagine, its relative Acanthus spinosus has much spinier leaves.
  • like a = oides, opsis

    Pandorea jasminoides is the pandorea like-a-jasmine. Dietes iridioides is the dietes like-an-iris. Cupaniopsis anacardioides is the tuckeroo like-a-cashew (Anacardium). Coreopsis, which means 'like a bedbug or tick' refers to the shape of the seed, thankfully, and not the flower!


Where does it come from?

the Chinese tea plant, Camellia sinensis
  • amazonica = the Amazon region of South America.

    You guessed that, right? Alocasia amazonica is a very popular indoor plant that enjoys humid tropical conditions.
  • japonica = Japan

    Another easy one to guess! Camellia japonica originates in that region, as does Chaenomeles japonica, the ornamental quince.
  • sinensis = China

    Camellia sinensis originates here, and is the plant origin of every cuppa we drink! Somewhat more obviously, plants with chinensis or chinense in the name - such as Loropetalum chinense rubrum 'China Pink' - also come from China.
  • formosa = an old name for Taiwan.

    Several unusual bulb flowers like the beautiful orchid Pleione formosa bear this species name.
  • the sea thrift, Armeria maritima
  • maritima = maritime regions, the seaside.

    Armeria maritima is sea thrift, and you'll find them in the wild clinging to cliffs along the coast.
  • littoralis = this means shoreline, of seas and rivers

    These plants often don't mind occasional wet feet or salty soils, like Hymenocallis littoralis, the spider lily.
  • officinalis = not official, but medicinal.

    Plants with this name - like ginger, Zingiber officinale, rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, and peony, Paeonia officinalis - are often found in very old botanic gardens and monasteries, where they were used as medicinal plants by healers and herbalists.

This is just a flavour of the information you can get by decoding the botanic names of plants.
Enjoy discovering more as you learn to speak Plant!