Why Scientific Names Matter

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on September 29, 2010

Human beings tend to name every thing — every rock, plant, and animal we come across.  It is necessary to do so in order to converse about them.  Problems come in when two people from different regions or backgrounds try to discuss a plant.  For example, my mother kept talking about the wild rose in my pasture.  I called it a multiflora rose.  The correct name is a McCartney rose.  Whatever it is, the thing grows like a weed.  It is not wild, but a plant introduced from Asia in the 1860s that went native.  But I digress.

In order to be sure people were talking about the same plant or animal, scientist began giving things names in Latin.  Once upon a time, Latin was the language of civilized discourse and most people learned it at school.  Referring to something by its’ scientific name helps overcome any confusion about what is being discussed.

French Hollyhock also called Mallow

French Hollyhock also called Mallow

The convention for plants is to list the genus first, then the species, then the cultivar, or subspecies.  The genus is a rough grouping of organisms while the species is the specific animal or plant.  For example, the French Holly Hock is also called Mallow.  The scientific name is always Malva sylvestris.  So if you use the scientific name, you are more likely to be talking about the same plant.

Scientific names take a bit of getting used to.  Sometimes they are a mouthful.  However, they are a more precise way of talking about a specific plant than common names.  Too, scientific names grow on you as you use them.  Happy gardening.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

ann smith September 29, 2010 at 7:57 pm

the mallow flower is so beautiful!


Patricia September 29, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I am just learning although the scientific names for the many species of lavenders. It’s great to be able to read articles from other countries and know we are talking about the same plant 🙂
However, there are a few controversial ones with lavenders and a debate about a few of the species (scientific name agreed, common name debated) so this post is very timely for me.
I am hoping to get a very informative reference book from Kew Gardens soon so will be even more up with their proper names then.
Patricia Perth Australia
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Stephanie Suesan Smith September 30, 2010 at 1:20 pm

There are species here with dozens of common names. Each person believes they use the only correct common name. It can get ugly at meetings, especially when someof the names are so regional half a dozen of them are being insisted on at the same meeting.


Patricia September 30, 2010 at 9:36 pm

I can imagine. I have already seen sites that call lavenders by different names to what I have called them! I will be quoting my reference book as soon as I get it with the Latin and “approved” common name. That should make for some interesting comments eh??!!
Patricia Perth Australia
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Stephanie Suesan Smith October 1, 2010 at 7:01 am

Interesting comments indeed. Especially since someone will drag out a reference book of their own and point to it as quoting the other names. Nomenclature has changed as scientists better understand the relationship between plants, or animals, and reclassify them. So older books may not represent the newest classifications or have the newer names.


Gail Gardner from Support Small Businesses October 1, 2010 at 5:41 pm

What many people do not realize is that just because something is in a book does not necessarily make it true. I realized as I was researching to contribute to a book that many times there may be multiple references but that all of them relied on one source. What if that source was wrong in the first place? Then all the references are wrong.

I can imagine that in these classifications that older books will have many errors that have been corrected as more was learned about genetics.

P.S. I noticed you’re using the new custom anti-spam plugin. How do you like it so far?
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Mortgage Boise October 1, 2010 at 3:35 am

great article…. it really helped me understanding the concept behind the scientific naming of flowers and gave answers to all my questions on this topic…thanks for this post.


Stephanie Suesan Smith October 1, 2010 at 7:08 am

That is what I hope to do — answer questions so people can understand them. Thanks for stopping by.


Orchid plants October 5, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Yes, becuase each plant of the same species may differ in appearance , how they grow, and so many factors.
Only when you correctly use the scientific name , you can pin point that particular plant. It is just like you give a chemical name to substances to make it easy for classifying them.


Fredrik August 10, 2011 at 1:49 pm

You bring up some valid arguments, it’s always important to call things by their proper names. And in this case it’s also essential.
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