Recently, we posted on our social media about a name change for our dear-friend, the snake plant. You guys seemed really interested in that post, so today I wanted to give you all a more in-depth look at the system of plant names and classification, otherwise known as taxonomy.
How are plants named?
Scientific plant names follow binomial nomenclature, meaning that each name has two parts. The first part is the genus, and the second part is the specific epithet. Together, these two make up a species’ name.
Why does taxonomy matter?
Taxonomy is extremely important in helping us understand and differentiate organisms. Mainly, it makes it easier to discuss specific plants because there is 1, and only 1, name for each. These names are always in Latin, which makes them more universally understood. This differs from common names, for as you may know, a single plant can have dozens of common names it goes by. It can get really confusing! For example, if someone says a money plant are they referring to Crassula ovata or Pachira aquatica? You would never know! But if they referred to it by its scientific names, there would be no question as to the identity of the plant they’re referencing.
How are plants classified?
Classification is placing plants in the right categories. These categories are called “taxa” (“taxon”=singular), which is simply a group of related organisms. Plants are classified by their characteristics, and their names also usually pertain to some characteristic of the plant.
Example of Taxonomy
Let’s use an olive tree for example. The scientific name for the olive tree is Olea europaea. There are about 30 species of Olea (a genus), and there are many plants with the specific epithet (2nd word in the scientific name) europaea. But there is only 1 Olea europaea.
Here’s a breakdown of the olive tree’s taxa.
Kingdom – Plantae
Phylum – Magnoliophyta
Class – Magnoliopsida
Order – Lamiales
Family – Oleaceae
Genus – Olea
Species – Olea europaea
There can be varieties/cultivars below species; however, these do not have a formal taxonomic status. The variety refers to that certain type of the species. For example, the scientific name for tomatoes (a species) is Solanum lycopersicum. Beefsteak is a variety of tomatoes, and is referred to as Solanum lycopersicum var. Beefsteak.
As scientists uncover new information, taxonomy is updated, so name changes do occasionally happen. Check out our last blog post to see an example of a plant that has a very confusing taxonomy.
Taxonomy is not just for scientists
Taxonomy can seem tedious, but it is not just for scientists. Learning more about plant names will only help you with your gardening. You will be able to recognize families of plants to better understand how to care for your’s, you will be able to better research information about your specific plant, and you’ll feel less intimidated by the vast world of botany.