It’s all in the name

20th March 2013

When it comes to foraging many people often comment that they find the Latin names (or more correctly the Scientific Names) of plants bewildering  and difficult to remember. At the end of the day as long as you can positively identify a plant it doesn’t matter too much what you call it and whilst there is no real need to start learning the scientific names an understanding of how they work and sometimes what they mean can be useful.

The discipline of arranging living organisms into groups based on their relationship to each other is called Taxonomy or Systematics. Each individual species or taxa is given a binominal scientific name.  This two-name  system was introduced by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 1700’s and has been in use ever since.

How organisms are named is governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature and in the past, categorising a species would be based on its physical attributes and their similarity, or not, to other closely related species. Nowadays this approach is supplemented by advances in DNA technology which allow scientists to examine (amongst other techniques) changes  in the DNA sequence of certain genes to work out relationships and this has sometimes led to complete re-classification of some organisms. This modern approach is referred to as Molecular Phylogeny. For flowering plants this technology has led to a group of renowned botanists getting together and forming the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (AGP). The publications from APG and their recommendations are now be taken up by major plant authorities and the latest World Checklist of Selected Plant Families and the most recent  edition of the Standard Flora of the British Isles have adopted the APG classification.

Using this system the Plant Kingdom is dived into divisions of which flowering plants or Angiosperms are one, this is broken down into classes, then orders, then families, then genera, then species and sometimes sub-species.  So to demonstrate how this works let’s  chose a plant which we’ve talked about before….Hogweed.   It’s classification would be;-

  • Kingdom: Plantae
  • Division: Angiospermae
  • Class: Euasterids II(Campanulids)
  • Order: Apiales
  • Family: Apiacae
  • Genera: Heracleum
  • Species: sphondylium

So from this you can see that the scientific name for Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium is simply the genera and the species name.  There are nine listed sub-species  of Hogweed, the one found in the UK is H. sphondylium sphondylium although in East Anglia there is H. sphondylium sibiricum which is thought to be introduced… the name suggests it originates somewhat further east than Eat Anglia.  The closely related Giant Hogweed H. mantegazzianum also occurs in the UK.

Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium

From the paragraph above  we can see how scientific names are normally used  in books, papers and other publications. They are normally written in italics. The genus name is used in full the first time it is mentioned but is subsequently abbreviated to its initial.

The fact that Giant Hogweed has the same genus name as normal Hogweed shows that it is very closely related. To illustrate this point think for example of ourselves Homo sapiens. The very closely related (sharing 98% of our DNA) Chimpanzee Pan troglodytes as can be seen from the scientific name is in a separate genus to us, the only other members of our genus Homo are now extinct, Neanderthals being an example H. neanderthalensis. 

Staying with Hogweed. Let’s have a look at the name its self.  Heracleum is derived from the Ancient Greek hero Heracles (better known as Hercules).  Like their namesake all members of the family are certainly big, robust plants.  The species name sphondylium  is also derived from the Greek for vertebrae (spondylon) and refers to the thick segmented stem. For Giant Hogweed the species name, mantegazzianum, is named after Paolo Mantegazza, a 19th century Italian anthropologist.  Quite frequently animals or plants are named after people.

Other times the scientific name can give us useful information. The word sylvan means inhabiting a wood or forest and is derived from the Latin for wood “silva”.  Many plants have a derivation of the word in their scientific name;- Scot’s Pine Pinus sylvestris, Beech Fagus sylvatica, Cow Parsley Anthriscus sylvestris, Wild Angelica Angelica sylvestis when this is used in the scientific name it should give a clue about where to look for them. There are other habitat indicators;- Agrestis means of the field, arvensis – in the field,  aquaticus means near water, pratensis to the meadow etc.

Beech Trees Fagus sylvatica in a wood!

Many scientific names are descriptive. White Clover Trifolium repens; tri means three, folium relates to the leaf and repens means it’s a creeping plant. So a creeping plant where the leaves are divided into three…..not a bad description. Hairy Bitter-cress Cardamine hirsute, hirsute means hairy.

Sometimes the colour is described; Alba means white, caeruleus- blue, purpura –purple/red, crocus- yellow.

The purple-red Foxglove Digitalis purpurae

Maculatus means spotted, think Hemlock Conium maculatum and Lord’s and Ladies Arum maculatum….OK they are not always spotted, but you get the point.

Lord’s and Ladies Arum maculatum ….complete with spots
The list goes on, but hopefully you can see that when you start to breakdown the meaning behind these names, not only does it make them easier to remember but they can, occasionally, be useful either in terms of locating the plant, identifying it or sometimes even knowing what it is used for.

Take Yarrow Achillea millifolium for example. The millefolium gives a very accurate description of the feathery, fern like leaves and literally means thousand leaves, there is a French pastry which has an almost identical name mille feuille, describing lots of layers of pastry.  However the Achillea part again stems back to Ancient Greece and this time the hero Achilles who supposedly carried the plant to treat wounds on the battlefield. Yarrow has got a long history of treating cuts and stemming bleeding.

Yarrow Achillea millefolium

The one aspect of scientific names that cannot be denied is their specificity. No matter where you are in the world and regardless of the language spoken, a particular species of plant will have that scientific name regardless.  This can enable positive identification where ever you are. If you are abroad and your guide book not in English the scientific name will allow you to identify the plant.


Even within the UK many plants will have numerous regional common names. A good example is Cleavers. It is also known as Goosegrass, Sticky Weed, Sticky Willy, Mutton Chops, Beggar lice, Clithe, Cliver, cliders, Goosebill, Hariff, Hayriffe, Gripgrass, Catchweed, Robin-run-in-the-Grass, Scratweed, Monkey Tails, Pony Tails, Everlasting Friendship, Bind Weed and probably more!  As you can this can not only be confusing but potentially dangerous. Many of its names are descriptive of the way it grows, but other plants can grow in the same fashion and share some of the names.  Bind Weed for example is more commonly used to describe members of the Convolvulus family particularly Field Bindweed Convolvulus arvensis (in the field…see above) which is considered mildly toxic and not edible.  If when talking about Cleavers the scientific name Gallium aparine is used, mixing it up with anything else is unlikely.

Cleavers Gallium aparine

And in case you’re wondering  Galium comes from the Greek word, “gala,” for milk. Other members of the bedstraw family (Genus Galium) are known for their ability to curdle milk. Aparine is from the Greek – apara which means “to seize,”…….if you’ve ever walked through a patch of this stuff, I’m sure you will have been seized.  Alternatively the whole name translates as “milk seizer”.  It has been used historically for removing hair and other particles from milk by straining it through mats of the plants. We have used it to strain the grounds from wild coffees and it works very well.

Who said scientific names are boring?


Kev Palmer

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