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What’s In a Name?

By Emmy Ulmschneider, Master Gardener

What’s In a Name?

By Emmy Ulmschneider, Master Gardener

Have you ever looked at a plant label before you bought a plant? There is a lot of information there if you know how to read it.

Every identified species has a Latin two-part name which is its official scientific name. It must include both parts and is the same around the world, no matter what language you are speaking. A common name refers to the regional name of a plant and can be called something different, depending on where you live.

So first, where do Latin binomials come from? The desire to order the living world is as old as humans and cuts across all cultures. We are wired to order our world and group like with like. In the 1700’s as people established collections, the desire to come up with a single worldwide classification scheme heated up. Long story short, into the fray came Carl Linnaeus, a master organizer and avid botanist who established the classification system that professionals and amateurs use today: the Linnaean Hierarchy. The beauty of this system is that it helps all users to understand the relationships between organisms and helps to identify and group organisms in a logical manner. So, for Autumn Sage:

Kingdom Plantae

Phylum (Division in plants) Magnoliophyta

Class Magnoliopsida Order Lamiales

Family Lamiaceae

Genus Salvia

Species greggii A.Gray

This means that Autumn Sage is in the same family as the mints in my garden and the weed henbit. You can feel this relatedness when you roll the stems of henbit, mint, and the non-woody stems of Autumn Sage between your fingers and feel the square stem. The binomial is always printed in italics or, if you are writing it, it is underlined. If you see a name after the italicized or underlined species name that is the name of the person (or persons) who first identified and described the species. In the case of Autumn Sage, Salvia greggii A. Gray, this means that Asa Gray, the Father of American Botany named this species sometime in the 1800’s. In 1865, Gray donated his plant collections and library to Harvard University where he had worked for thirty years, and the Gray Herbarium was born. If you were to go to the Gray Herbarium, you might be able to actually see some of his type specimens. Salvia greggii honors of Josiah Gregg, a Texas frontiersman, naturalist, and explorer.

In the past, classifications were based primarily on morphological characteristics one could see. Now taxonomists use DNA technology to establish evolutionary relatedness within groups of organisms or populations and that has changed some groupings and added some super or subgroups. So, check out the entries for Autumn Sage in our two favorite plant databases:

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database

and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Plant Database

At a nursery, looking for an Autumn Sage, you might see Salvia greggii ‘Lipstick’ or even Salvia greggii Sierra linda®. What this indicates is that this plant is a cultivated species grown usually asexually in a nursery. Most cultivars are a result of selective breeding by humans for some attractive characteristic such as flower color or growth form. That means they might be more desirable in a home landscape. However, if you are planting for habitat, the very traits that make a cultivar attractive may make them less beneficial in a home garden ecosystem. A trademark symbol after the cultivar name shows that grower intends to register the plant name. In addition, you might also see something like Salvia ‘Indigo Spires” which indicates this is a hybrid cross between Salvia longispicata and Salvia farinacea and is called Indigo Spires. The abbreviation var. stands for variety. Salvia chamaedryoides var. isochroma means that the variety is found in the wild and its seeds breed true to the parent plant unlike a cultivar where the seeds to not breed true to the parent plant.


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