What’s in a name?

The system of giving scientific names to plants and animals was invented by a Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, who lived in the 18th century (1707-1778).

This means that every plant has a ‘proper’ name, which tells you exactly what it is and what other plants it is related to.

You will have seen some proper or scientific names of plants in this website. Each name has two parts. The names should always be in Italics, or underlined.

First comes the Genus – this is like a family name. It always has a capital letter.

Then the species – which is like somebody’s first name. It always has a small letter.

For example, Rebutia senilis. Rebutia is the genus, the family name (there are other closely related plants who also have the name Rebutia, like Rebutia marsoneri) and senilis is this one particular species who belongs to Rebutia.

The Genus names are only the same for closely-related plants, but the species name might be the same for a number of plants that are not related. Just as you might know a number of people who have the same first name as you.

Some of the names are derived from Latin or Greek words which were considered the languages of scholarship. Others might be derived from someone’s name or a place.

Here are a few examples of names which are included on this site.

From Greek words

Echinocereus – this comes from the Greek word echinos meaning a porcupine, and cereus meaning candle like.
See Cacti and Small ones for pictures of Echinocereus.

Opuntia – from Opus, the name of a city in ancient Greece.
See Flat ones for pictures of different types of Opuntia.

Rhipsalis – from the Greek rhips, which means reed, chosen because of its slender reed-like stems.
See Ones that grow on trees for a picture of a Rhipsalis.

From someone’s name

Pereskia – this plant was named by Linnaeus after a French scientist called Nicholas Fabre de Peiresc. Unfortunately he didn’t spell it correctly!
See Ones with leaves for pictures of Pereskia.

From a place where the plants grow

Copiapoa – named after the city of Copiapo in Chile, which is where these plants come from.
See Where do cacti live for a picture of a very old Copiapoa.

Some of these names look as if they are a little difficult to pronounce. Don’t worry about it though. As long as other people can understand what plant you are talking about, it doesn’t matter how you pronounce its name.

A third-party website (not connected to BCCS) is Botanary, an online dictionary of plant names, hosted by the site Dave’s Garden.

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