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What’s in a name?

Botanical nomenclature, the term used to describe the formal naming of plants, has been around for a long time, actually since the mid 17th century. The current system of nomenclature has its beginning with Carolus Linneaus, a Swedish botanist, who formalized today’s system of naming plants.

Botanical nomenclature is independent of zoological nomenclature. Therefore botanists do not have to be concerned with the names or rules associated with animals and bacteria.

The current nomenclature system is known as Binomial nomenclature. Under this system plant names have three components: (1) the genus name; (2) the specific epithet; and (3) the authority or individual(s) responsible for the name. Components 1 and 2 are either italicized or underlined.

An example is Drosera capensis L. Drosera is the genus name for the group of plants commonly known as sundews. The specific epithet is capensis, Latin for cape, and is descriptive of the Cape in South Africa, where this plant naturally occurs. The authority is L., an abbreviation for Linneaus, who first coined a formal name for this plant.

So the proper Binomial name is Drosera capensis L. It is common, and acceptable to see a Binomial name without the author. As in Drosera capensis.

There are also a number of levels of classification below that of species, with the most common being subspecies and variety, abbreviated to ‘subsp.’, (or less usefully ‘ssp.’) and ‘var.’ respectively. This allows further subdivision of plant groups to reflect the variation in form and distribution we see in nature.

An example of a subspecies is Sarracenia purpurea L. var. venosa (Raf.) Fernald. Also written as Sarracenia purpurea var venosa. As you can see from the example above, each name below genus has a author attached to it. Again, the name can be written without through author components.

What about families? You’re probably familiar with the term family when it comes to plants. Family sits above Genus, and is a collective term encompassing every member of the genera it’s represents. For example, the Sarraceniaceae family consists of all plants. Including cultivars in the genera Sarracenia, Darlingtonia, and Heliamphora.

As we work with carnivorous plants it’s all but impossible to come a cross cultivars too. Names for cultivars (cultivated varieties) is more complicated and dictated by another set of rules known as the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants.

The cultivar name is always added after a valid Binomial name at the genus or species level, is not Latinised, is put in single quotes, and is not italicised. Some examples of cultivar names and their meanings are:

  1. Sarracenia ‘Alicia’ – a cultivar which is a man-made hybrid between two species
  2. Sarracenia flava ‘Maxima’ – a cultivar which is a selected form of a valid species.
  3. Sarracenia flava L. ‘Maxima’ – a cultivar which is a selected form of a valid species.
  4. Sarracenia ‘Maxima’ – is an alternative way of naming this plant, acceptable, but less informative.

You might have heard the term clone before? A clone is an unregistered cultivar. All cultivars are clones, but not all clones are cultivars. Often people will distinguish the difference between a cultivar name and a clone name by using a double quote to represent a clone instead of a single quotes.

An example is Dionaea muscipula “Dutch” (unregistered clone) vs Dionaea muscipula ‘Dutch Delight’ (registered name)

Cultivar names have author components too. The name is usually the person who registered the cultivar with the appropriate cultivar registrar authority. For more information on cultivar names, you might want to check out the International Carnivorous Plant Society website. The ICPS is the registrar for cultivars of carnivorous plants.

Plant names can seem overwhelming. My advice is persevere, read and ask questions. Any grower worth your time will be able to explain their plants and plant names to you. People spend years studying botany at universities to get a handle on this stuff. Don’t give up, you’ll get there.

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