The Meaning of Latin Plant Names
The purpose of the Latin or botanical name of plants is to provide some information about a particular plant that distinguishes it from other plants. The adjective applied to the plant, the specific epithet, is often helpful in describing the plant. The specific epithet can tell us the colour of the flowers, the height of the plant, whether the leaves are long and thin or short and fat, whether the plant is prickly, where it comes from (which might give us a clue as to how hardy it is), what sort of conditions it occurs in naturally, how big it is, whether it's a climber or whether it's creeping, whether it's deciduous, has a bulb, is edible - or whatever else the person who found it thought most remarkable, noteworthy and unique about it.

Like many other languages, Latin assigns genders to all its nouns, and adjectives have to agree with the gender of the noun they describe. In plant names, therefore, those that are deemed masculine will end in -us, those that are feminine will end in -a, and those that are neuter will end in -um (plus some odd ones with other endings). To simplify things, only the feminine endings have been used here, but if you come across a plant with much the same name, but ending in -us or -um, it means the same

These are some of the Latin specific epithets often applied to plants we grow in our gardens.

abyssinica = from Abysinnia (Ethiopia) (North Africa)
acaulis = stemless
aestivalis = flowering in spring
alba = white
alpestris = from mountains
alpicola = from mountains
alpina = from the alps
altissima = tallest
america = from America
angustifolia = narrow-leaved
annua = annual
-antha = -flowered (e.g. micrantha = small-flowered)
arboricola = living on trees
arctica = from the arctic
arenaria = from sandy places
argentea = silvery
armata = prickly
arvensis = of the field
aurantiaca = orange
aurea = golden, yellow
australis = from the south (not necessarily Australia)
autumnalis = of autumn
azurea = blue
barbata = bearded, hairy
bellidifolia = with leaves like those of a daisy
borealis = from the north
bulbifera = bearing bulbs
bulgarica = from Bulgaria
caerulea = blue
caespitosa = dense
campanulata = campanulate, like a bell
campestris = of the field
canadensis = from Canada
canariensis = from the Canary Isles
capensis = from the Cape, South Africa
chilensis = from Chile
chinensis = from China
chrysantha = yellow
clivora = from the hills
coccinea = red
compacta = compact
decidua = deciduous
densiflora = dense-flowered
digitata = (leaves) like a hand, with five lobes
edulis = edible
esculenta = edible
farinosa = floury, powdery
ficifolia = like a fig leaf
flava = yellow
-flora = -flowered (e.g. viridiflora = green-flowered)
flore plena = with double flowers
florida = floriferous
foetida = with an unpleasant smell
-folia = -leaved (e.g. tenuifolia = narrow-leaved)
foliosa = leafy
fruticosa = shrubby
gigantea = giant
glabra = smooth
glacialis = from cold areas
glutinosa = sticky
graeca = from Greece
graminifolia = with grassy leaves
grandiflora = large-flowered
grandis = big
helvetica = from Switzerland
hirsuta = hairy
hispida = bristly
humilis = short
hyemalis = of winter
incana = grey
inodora = unscented
integrifolia = entire, undivided (leaves)
japonica = from Japan
lanata = woolly
lanceolata = lance-shaped (leaves)
latifolia = wide-leaved
longiflora = with long flowers
longifolia = with long leaves
lutea = yellow
macrantha = large flowered
macro- = large- (e.g. macrorhiza = large-rooted)
macrocarpa = large-fruited
macrophylla = with large leaves
macrorrhiza = with large roots
maculata = spotted
magellanica = from the south of South America
magenta = magenta
magna = big
majus = bigger
maritima = maritime, near the sea
maxima = biggest
mexicana = from Mexico
micrantha = small flowered
microphylla = with small leaves
millefolia = with many (thousands of) leaves
minima = small
minor = smaller
montana = from mountains
multiflora = many flowered
muralis = growing on walls
nana = small
nocturna = nocturnal
ochroleuca = cream
odorata = perfumed
officinalis = with herbal uses
ovalifolia = with oval leaves
pallida = cream
palustris = from marshes
parvi- = small- (e.g. parivflora = small-flowered)
parviflora = small flowered
parvifolia = with small leaves
pauci- = few- (e.g. pauciflora =few-flowered)
pauciflora = few-flowered
paucifolia = with few leaves
pendula = hanging
perennis = perennial
phoenicea = purple
-phylla = -leaved (e.g. macrophylla = large-leaved)
pinnata = with pinnate leaves
poly- = many (e.g polyantha = many-flowered)
polyphylla = with many leaves, leafy
praecox = early, of spring
pratensis = field
procumbens = creeping
prostrata = prostrate
pulverulenta = dusty
pumila = small
punica = red
purpurea = deep pink
pygmaea = small
quercifolia = oak=leaved
rediviva = perennial
rivalis = from near rivers
rivularis = from near rivers
rosea = rose pink
rotundifolia = round-leaved
rubra = red
rupestris = of hills
rupicola = of hills
russica = from Russia
sanguinea = blood-red
sativa = cultivated
saxatilis = of rocks
scaber = climbing
scandens = climbing
semperviva = perennial
sibirica = from Siberia
sinense = from China
somnifera = inducing sleep
spicata = spiked
spinosa = spiny
stellata = starry
sulphurea = yellow
sylvestris = of woods
tenuifolia = with thin, narrow leaves
texensis = from Texas
tomentosa = tomentose, woolly
trifoliata = trifoliate, with three-lobed leaves
umbellata = unbellate, with flowers in an umbel
velutina = velvety
vernalis = of spring
villosa = hairy
violacea = violet
viridis = green
viscosa = sticky
vitifolia = with leaves like a vine
volubilis = twining
vulgaris = common

(With grateful thanks to whoever writes the Chiltern Seeds catalogue, who taught me all the botanical Latin I know!)


Other entries with information on this topic

Perennial or Annual? - some popular plants with their common and Latin names
Common Names and the Latin names of some popular garden plants
Common Names Index - the common names of plants mentioned in these pages, with their Latin name
Plant Families - an introduction to Plant Families

and a brilliant website:

California Plant Names - detailed explanation of the origins of Latin and Greek plant names and the people they're named after

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