Binomial nomenclature: Two names are better than one

Are you confused by the names you see on plant labels? Names help us identify plants so that we can provide the correct care for them.

Plant labels
Photo by Lori Imboden, MSU Extension.

Have you ever seen hens and chicks? Did you know that there are several different plant species that use the same common name? Sempervivum, Echeveria and some sedum species can share this common name. This causes confusion as each one has unique features and needs. What you call hen and chicks may not have the same growing requirements as my hen and chicks. They may not even look the same.

The naming system we use for plants is called binomial nomenclature. Binomial nomenclature is often confusing for newly christened plant enthusiasts, but it doesn’t have to be. While each plant may have multiple common names, it should only have one binomial name. This prevents confusion that is often introduced by using common names. Binomial nomenclature uses Latin or Latinized adjectives or descriptive words to categorize plants. Latinized is a fancy way of saying made up using a Latin-like form.

There are two main parts for each plant species name. The first part is known as the genus. The second part is the specific epithet. Together, they are known as the species, Latin binomial, or scientific name. These help us understand how plants are grouped together or classified.

Plant names help us when placing them inside of a hierarchical structure. This helps us understand how they relate to one another. They are structured this way. The highest level in the plant binomial is the genus followed by the specific epithet, which is at the “species” level. If the plant is a variety or cultivar, it will be indicated after the binomial. For example, let’s compare pugs and potatoes.

Pugs belong to the same genus as the wolf. This genus is Canus. Potatoes are in Solanum, the same genus as eggplant and tomatoes. Pugs belong to the species Canus familiaris, along with Yorkshire terriers, Maltese, golden retrievers and all other domesticated dogs. Solanum tuberosum ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes belong to the same species as other potatoes such as Solanum tuberosum ‘Russet Burbank’. Pugs are a breed of dog, much like a ‘Yukon Gold’ is a cultivar of potato. Now you know one of the many ways that pugs are like potatoes.

Pugs compared to potatoes
Photo by Barslund Judd, MSU Extension.

While using Latin binomials may seem complicated, it can help us communicate more clearly. The first step in avoiding and identifying plant problems is to know your plant. If you need growing instructions for your hens and chicks and not other plants bearing that common name, knowing the Latin binomial can help you find accurate information about your plants.

For additional questions about indoor plants, Ask an Expert or call the Michigan State University Extension toll-free Lawn and Garden Hotline at 1-888-678-3464.

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