Plant Names

1) Names for Plant Families
Common names
Scientific names
History of scientific names

Names for Plant Species

Why Use Scientific Names?

Common names shown on this website are those most often used in the Four Corners region. Scientific names are those used by John Kartesz in BONAP, his labor of over 50 years.

Common names have no standardization. Each country and regions within countries have their own common names for plants.

Scientific names are standardized world-wide.

Each person makes the decision about how accurate and detailed they want to be in understanding plants. Some of us are happy knowing "Oak". Others want to know what kind of Oak. Others want to know all the details about Oaks. Start where you are comfortable, keep your options open, and see where you end up.  

Following is a brief summary about what common and scientific names are and why common names should be avoided and scientific names should be used.

Common and scientific names.

Common names have no standardization even in small local areas and thus common names vary from person to person, state to state, region to region, and country to country. Even at the plant family level, there is confusion in common names. One person says "Sunflower Family", another says "Aster Family", another "Daisy Family", and another " Composite Family". Some people say "Peas", some "Beans", some "Legumes" or "Vetches" or "Milk Vetches". The name "Lady Slipper" is applied to a number of different Orchids; the name "Chickweed" to many different species; the name "Primrose" to members of entirely different families. And all thorny plants are just plain "Cactus" -- whether they are cylindrical or flat, Yuccas, or spiny shrubs.

If you want to purchase a plant you admire, or if you want to work toward the protection of that plant, or if you want to learn more about that plant, you will need the exact, unmistakable scientific name. There is no such thing as an exact, unmistakable common name.

Following are some of the cons and pros of common names. The cons by far outweigh the pros.

1) Common names are made up by anyone for any reason and are not recorded or attached to a preserved plant specimen.  

2) In almost all instances it is impossible to find out who gave the common name, when they gave it, what it means, and, most importantly, exactly which plant it refers to.

3) There is no standardization of common names. There are no books that list common names with details about the precise characteristics of each plant so we can know for sure what plant is being referred to.

4) Common names do not show relationships among plants. Your last name is your family name and shows relationship; a plant's scientific name places it in a group of similar plants with the same name and this shows relationship. The vast majority of common names do not show relationships.

5) Most plants have no common name. Now that’s a very good, indisputable reason for not using common names. Remember this when you look at plant identification books. Most authors will tell you that they have made up a number of common names just for publishing in their book. Very often that made up common name is just a rearrangement of the scientific name. For instance, the scientific name Phacelia fremontii becomes Fremont's Phacelia.

6) Plants with common names always have several common names because names vary from person to person, region to region, and country to country. Thus, using common names leads to misunderstandings and arguments.

7) In a number of instances, the same common name refers to several different species, not to one specific plant: There are many "Bluebells", "Paintbrush", "Goldenrod", "Daisy", "Groundsel", "Geranium", "Chickweed", "Fir", "Pine". So if you want to know the name of a particular plant and someone tells you "That's a Paintbrush", they have just helped you about as much as someone telling you that man's name is "tall human being";  there are many different kinds of Paintbrush and many different people who are tall.

8) Some totally unrelated plants have the exact same common name, for example, the "Skunk Cabbage" of the East and the West.  The same confusion reigns with many other names: "Bluebells", "Lily", "Buttercup", "Shooting Star".

9) Plants in the Southwest United States have Spanish, Native American, and English common names. Which common names should be used? The truth is that they are all jumbled together and in the Southwest it is common to walk a trail and refer to one plant by an English common name (Elephant Heads), the next plant by a Spanish name ("Osha"), and the next by an Indian name ("Chuchu pate").

Where do common names come from?  As I indicated above, anyone can make them up. People make up common names to refer to some real or imaginary aspect of the plant. Some common names refer to a perceived visual (often color) characteristic of a plant ("Bluebells", "Golden Glow", "Baby’s Breath"), or are some part of the scientific name ("Geranium", "Delphinium", "Aster", "Whipple's Penstemon", "Engelmann's Cactus"), or are derived from human names ("Black-eyed Susan", "St. John’s Wort"), or refer to a plant’s resemblance to another plant ("False Solomon’s Seal", "False Hellebore"), or are given because they remind human beings of something ("Butter and Eggs", "Monkey Flower"), or are assigned for some real or imaginary medicinal property ("Lousewort", "Self-Heal").

Overall, then, a common name should be used with caution, realizing that each name frequently refers to several plants, not to one plant, and that the common name varies from person-to-person.

What are the advantages of using common names?

1) Because in the U.S. our common names are almost always in English, our native language, they are easy to pronounce and, therefore, easier to remember.

2) They sometimes have a charm about them: Blue-eyed Mary, Cone Flower, Baby's Breath, Indian Paintbrush, Chiming Bells, Perky Sue....

3) Although I have pointed out that one major problem with common names is that they vary so much, there are some common names that are fairly standard and widely understood: Oak, Pine, Sycamore, Ash, Dogwood, Mullein, Thistle, Poison Ivy. But most such standard common names refer not to one particular plant but to a group of plants. If your favorite Oak tree dies and you go to a nursery to buy a replacement, it won't get you far to say, "I want an Oak". You need at least to know "White Oak" or better yet, "Quercus alba". That way you will get exactly what you want.

My wife and I have special common names that we have assigned to a few plants and we do use these names occasionally  --  in a whisper only to each other.  

Overall it should be remembered that the point of names is to facilitate communication. Common names do not do that.

The common names that I give in this website are those that I have heard most often associated with plants in the Four Corners region.

Scientific names are in Latin and/or Greek, are assigned by botanists to plants, and are accepted internationally, i.e., the exact same name is used for the plant in China, South Africa, Chile, and Canada.

To be accepted, a scientific name must be written on a collection sheet with the original plant (the type specimen). The name must be published in a book, botanical journal, newspaper, magazine, or accepted website along with a detailed description of the plant. From this information future researchers can always find out who collected the plant, who named the plant, when they collected and named it, and the precise characteristics of the plant.  For an example see this page on my website.

Most importantly, future researchers can see the actual plant, for the plant is preserved in a herbarium. Herbaria are now putting photographs of their specimens online so a wider audience has access to them. Click for an example of a virtual herbarium.

The scientific name for a plant, i.e., the name of the species, is always two-part, two words. The first word designates the "genus" to which the plant belongs and the second, called the "specific epithet" or "species epithet", or "species name", gives a name to distinguish this plant from all others in the same genus.  For example, in the name Senecio serra, "Senecio" is the genus and "serra" is the specific epithet. Senecio serra is the name of the species. There are many other Senecios but only one Senecio serra.  No other plant in the world has the name "Senecio serra".

All Senecios are members of the Sunflower Family, scientifically called Asteraceae. All Asteraceae share a number of similar characteristics. Members of Asteraceae that share a smaller number of very similar characteristics are grouped into genera. Each genus is comprised of a number of species that share an even smaller group of similar characteristics. And finally, each species has some significantly different characteristics that set it apart from all other members of the genus and thus from all other plants in the world.

Both the genus and the specific epithet are italicized; the genus is capitalized and the specific epithet is lower case: Senecio serra.

Scientific names describe a characteristic of the plant (hairy, short, twin seeds), show a relationship to other plants (similar to a plant from another country, similar to another genus), honor a place or person (see the Biographies of Naturalists section of this website), or are derived from history (an ancient use or the name of an ancient country where the plant was first recorded).

The scientific name almost always appears as only the genus and specific epithet, e.g., Senecio serra, Arnica cordifolia. But the full scientific name includes the author's name and the date of publication of the description, e.g., 

Arnica cordifolia Hooker 1834

This means that the plant was named and described by William Jackson Hooker in 1834. Having this information leads one to the written material where the plant was first described and named and then one can find out where the plant was collected, why the name was given, who collected it, and all the details of the plants structure.  

Note that the person named after the plant name is not necessarily (in fact, most often not) the person who discovered the plant.  Arnica cordifolia was discovered by Thomas Drummond and he sent it to Hooker to describe and name.

There are a number of other variations in the appearance of the scientific name:

a) Picea engelmannii Parry ex Engelmann 

This means that Parry named Picea engelmannii (what we commonly call Engelmann Spruce) and sent a specimen and the name to Engelmann who published the description with the name Parry suggested for the plant OR it could mean that Parry did attempt to publish the name and description but his attempt was ruled invalid and later Engelmann validly published a description of the plant and gave it the name that Parry had first conceived. 

Although the plant bears Engelmann's name, he did not discover it or name it. It is common for a plant to be named to honor a person -- perhaps even a person who never saw the plant, although in this case, Engelmann did see the plant named for him when he traveled to Colorado (a number of years after it was discovered by Parry).

b) Calypso bulbosa (L.) Oakes 

This means that Linnaeus ("L.") first named this plant but the name he gave (which is never shown, but in this case was Cypripedium bulbosum) was changed by Oakes to reflect more accurate classification. The person who first names a plant always has their name attached to the plant even if the plant name is changed. If someone else were to come along and change Oakes' plant name, Oakes' name would be dropped:

Calypso linearis (L.) Smith

As this last point indicates, scientific names change: new research can show that a plant was originally mis-classified. Unfortunately there is no national or world-wide group that reviews research and publishes THE most up-to-date scientific name. If a researcher believes that they have found evidence that plants should be regrouped and renamed, they publish this evidence and it is gradually accepted or rejected by peers. This means that several scientific names might be used for the same plant until the passage of time settles the dispute. This is messy, confusing, and irritating. But at least these alternate names are always linked and published together so even though the scientific community does not agree on one name as THE name, we do know the two or three choices. (Click to read further discussion of this under "Synonyms".  And click to read a nice, short explanation by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, about why names change.)

A very hopeful sign is that over the past several decades more and more regional and national floras have been developed and made available on the web. These floras are going a long way in helping to standardize scientific botanical names. 

To facilitate communication it is important to have one text as the basis for your scientific names. The names that I give for plants in this website are those designated by John Kartesz in his BONAP website. These names are shown in bold, synonyms are non-bold. 

Click to read a story about the complexity and difficulty of naming plants: "The Story of Naming Engelmann Spruce and Colorado Blue Spruce".


Plants that share many similar characteristics are grouped into families. These families have both scientific and common names. Click for descriptions of plant families included on this website.

Scientific Names for Plant Families

According to the agreement reached in the mid-1900s by members of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, scientific names of plant families all have the Latin suffix "aceae": Asteraceae, Fabaceae, Rosaceae, etc.  "Aceae" is Latin for "a family" or "a group".  "Rosaceae" thus means "the Rose Family ".  You use a scientific family name without adding the word "family".
Correct: "Common roses are in Rosaceae" or "Rosaceae includes common roses". Incorrect because it is repetitious: "Common roses are in the Rosaceae Family".

The International Code does accept eight alternate scientific family names that do not end in "aceae".

      Apiaceae can also be Umbelliferae
      Arecaceae can also be Palmae 
      Asteraceae can also be Compositae
      Brassicaceae can also be Cruciferae
      Clusiaceae can also be Guttiferae
      Fabaceae can also be Leguminosae
      Lamiaceae can also be Labiatae
      Poaceae can also be Gramineae








Almost all botanists, plant nursery owners, and gardeners use the scientific family names ending in "aceae".

Stanley Welsh, author of the excellent A Utah Flora, uses the alternate family names on the right side in the above list, but he uses scientific family names ending in aceae for all other families. 

Unusual Names for Plant Families

The list below shows some alternate scientific family names that are used by William Weber (Colorado Flora). Few, if any, other botanists accept these names.

This website uses the more accepted family names from the table below.

Weber's Family Names More Accepted Family Name
Alsinaceae (Chickweed) Caryophyllaceae (Pink)
Calochortaceae (Sego Lily) Liliaceae (Lily)
Convallariaceae (Mayflower) Liliaceae (Lily)
Cypripediaceae (Lady's Slipper) Orchidaceae (Orchid)
Helleboraceae (Hellebore) Ranunculaceae (Buttercup)
Thalictraceae (Meadowrue) Ranunculaceae (Buttercup)
Uvulariaceae (Bellwort Flower) Liliaceae (Lily)



Genetic and morphological research continues to produce new information about relationships among plants and new names for these plants. The table below lists 123 name changes for plants on this website. The name changes are in accord with the Biota of North America Program (BONAP), These names are almost always the same as you will find in the Flora of North America and the APG IV system.

For a number of reasons you may find some of the synonyms still in use: 1) floras you use may not be updated, 2) authors of a flora may not have read the most recent research, 3) authors of a flora may not agree with the need for a name change. There is no national or international group that rules on the correct name for plants. Each botanist writing a flora decides what names to use.

Although most names in the first column below are no longer valid names according to BONAP and the Flora of North America , there are several that are still valid in some regions. For instance, Erigeron peregrinus is a valid name for a species found in a few counties of Oregon and Washington, and in British Columbia, the Yukon Territories, and Alaska. E. peregrinus had been considered a species of much of the West, but that species is now known to be a similar species, Erigeron glacialis. The same is true of Abies lasiocarpa and Abies bifolia.

Note also that the list below does not include dozens of unusual names from Weber and Wittmann's Colorado Flora. Some of those names are shown above, many more, such as Adenolinum, Amerosedum, Breea, Psilochenia, Sabina, Seriphidium are included in the alphabetical species list available on the opening page of this website when you press "Submit".

The list below was accurate for this website until 2019. Over the past decades there have been so many name changes that I include them only on the master data list that you access on the first page of this website, and, of course, names are changed on the individual species page.

Old name, now a synonym New Name
Abies lasiocarpa Abies bifolia
Alyssum parviflorum Alyssum simplex
Amsonia tomentosa Amsonia eastwoodiana
Anotites menziesii Silene menziesii
Aster foliaceus Symphyotrichum
var. canbyi
Aster spathulatus Symphyotrichum
Astragalus cottamii Astragalus monumentalis
Astragalus tenellus Astragalus multiflorus
Atriplex pleiantha Proatriplex pleiantha
Bahia dissecta Amauriopsis dissecta
Boechera drummondii Boechera stricta
Calylophus lavandulifolius Oenothera lavandulifolia
Camissonia scapoidea Chylismia scapoidea
Camissonia walkeri Chylismia walkeri
Cardaria chalepensis Lepidium chalepense
Cardaria draba Lepidium draba
Cardaria latifolia Lepidium latifolium
Castilleja sulphurea Castilleja septentrionalis
Centaurea repens Rhaponticum repens
Cerastium strictum Cerastium arvense
Chaenactis alpina Chaenactis douglasii
Chamaesyce fendleri Euphorbia fendleri
Chamaesyce glyptosperma Euphorbia glyptosperma
Chamaesyce serpyllifolia Euphorbia serpyllifolia
Chamerion danielsii Chamaenerion angustifolium
ssp. circumvagum
Chamerion subdentatum Chamaenerion latifolium
Cheilanthes feei Myriopteris gracilis
Cheilanthes limitanea Argyrochosma limitanea
Chrysothamnus nauseosus Ericameria nauseosa
Chrysothamnus parryi Ericameria parryi
Cicutata douglasii Cicutata maculata
Cirsium calcareum Cirsium arizonicum
Cirsium eatonii var. hesperium Cirsium scopulorum
Cleome lutea Cleomella lutea
Cleome serrulata Cleomella serrulata
Corydalis curvisiliqua ssp. occidentalis Corydalis aurea ssp. occidentalis
Coryphantha missouriensis Escobaria missouriensis
Coryphantha vivipara Escobaria vivipara
Cryptantha  perennials are now Oreocarya
Cymopterus acaulis Cymopterus glomeratus
var. fendleri
Cymopterus bulbosus Vesper bulbosus
Cymopterus constancei Vesper constancei
Cymopterus fendleri Cymopterus glomeratus
var. fendleri
Distegia involucrata Lonicera involucrata
Draba breweri Draba cana
Draba cuneifolia Tomostima cuneifolia
Draba reptans Tomostima reptans
Encelia frutescens Encelia resinifera var. resinosa
Epilobium alpinum Epilobium anagallidifolium
Eremogone kingii Eremogone eastwoodiae
Erigeron colomexicanus Erigeron trayci
Erigeron peregrinus Erigeron glacialis var. glacialis
Eucephalus glaucus Herrickia glauca
Frangula betulifolia ssp. obovata Frangula obovata
Frasera utahensis Frasera paniculata
Gilia formosa Aliciella formosa
Gilia haydenii Aliciella haydenii
Gilia pinnatifida Aliciella pinnatifida
Gilia subnuda Aliciella subnuda
Krascheninnikovia lanata Krascheninnikovia ceratoides
Lappula marginata & L. occidentalis Lappula redowski
Lathyrus leucanthus Lathyrus lanszwertii
Leptodactylon pungens Linanthus pungens
Lesquerella   is replaced with Physaria
Limnorchis aquilonis Platanthera aquilonis
Limnorchis huronensis Platanthera huronensis
Linanthus nuttallii Leptosiphon nuttallii
Listera cordata Neottia cordata
Lotus wrightii Acmispon wrightii
Lysiella obtusata Platanthera obtusata
Machaeranthera spp. Xanthisma spp. or
Dieteria spp.
Maianthemum racemosum Maianthemum amplexicaule
Malcolmia africana Strigosella africana
Melilotus alba Melilotus officinalis
Mitella pentandra Pectiantia pentandra
Noccaea montana Noccaea fendleri
Oligosporus dracunculus Artemisia dracunculus
Orobanche genus is now Aphyllon
Oxalis alpina, Oxalis violacea Oxalis metcalfei
Packera oodes Packera streptanthifolia
Pedicularis sudetica Pedicularis scopulorum
Pentaphylloides floribunda Dasiphora fruticosa
Phlox hoodii ssp. canescens Phlox canescens
Polygala subspinosa Rhinotropis subspinosa
Polygonum amphibium Persicaria amphibia
Polygonum lapathifolium Persicaria lapathifolia
Polygonum persicaria Persicaria maculosa
Populus fremontii Populus deltoides ssp. wislizeni
Pseudocymopterus montanus Cymopterus lemmonii
Pyrola rotundifolia Pyrola asarifolia
Rhamnus betulifolia ssp. obovata Frangula obovata
Rhus trilobata Rhus aromatica var. trilobata
Ribes coloradense Ribes laxiflorum

Rubacer parviflorus & Rubus parviflorus

Rubus nutkanus
Rudbeckia ampla Rudbeckia laciniata
Salix arctica Salix petrophila
Salix reticulata Salix nivalis
Sambucus microbotrys Sambucus racemosa
Sanguisorba minor Poterium sanguisorba
Saxifraga odontoloma Micranthes odontoloma
Saxifraga oregana Micranthes oregana
Saxifraga rhomboidea Micranthes rhomboidea
Saxifraga rivularis Saxifraga hyperborea
Schoenocrambe linifolia Sisymbrium linifolium
Smelowskia calycina
var. americana
Smelowskia americana
Spergulastrum lanuginosum Arenaria lanuginosa
ssp. saxosa
Swertia albomarginata Frasera albomarginata
Swertia paniculata Frasera paniculata
Swertia radiata Frasera speciosa
Symphoricarpos oreophilus Symphoricarpos rotundifolius
Talinum brevifolium Phemeranthus brevifolius
Talinum parviflorus Phemeranthus confertiflorus
Thlaspia montanum Noccaea fendleri
Tithymalus brachycera Euphorbia brachycera
Tragopogon lamottei Tragopogon pratensis
Trimorpha lonchophylla Erigeron lonchophyllus
Trollius laxus ssp. albiflorus Trollius albiflorus
Urtica gracilis Urtica dioica ssp. gracilis
Valeriana capitata Valeriana acutiloba
Veronica nutans Veronica wormskjoldii
Ximenesia encelioides Verbesina encelioides
Zigadenus elegans Anticlea elegans
Zigadenus paniculatus Toxicoscordion paniculatum
Zigadenus venenosus Toxicoscordion venenosum



Genetic research carried on since the 1990s has provided considerable new information about the relationship of plants. The Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) was formed to review the research and make taxonomic recommendations, many of which led to the merging of some families and the movement of some genera to new families. The vast majority of families and genera have not been shifted into new families, and species names have not been changed.

Major herbaria, most botanists, and most new publications accept the APG research and the new family classifications.

This website uses the latest APG classifications, which are also accepted by John Kartesz, the ultimate authority for all plant names on this website.

Click here to see the composition of all families shown in this website.

Following are the family shifts that affect plants found on this website. This information is current as of January, 2024. There certainly will be updates.

Almost all genera of the Snapdragon Family (Scrophulariaceae) have been moved to other families:
Paintbrush (Castilleja), Lousewort (Pedicularis), Club Flower (Cordylanthus), and Owl Clover (Orthocarpus) are now in the Broomrape Family (Orobanchaceae);
Snow Lover (Chionophila), Blue-Eyed Mary (Collinsia), Toadflax (Linaria), Penstemon (Penstemon), Veronica (Veronica and Veronicastrum) are now in the Plantain Family (Plantaginaceae);
Monkey Flower (Mimulus) is now in the Lopseed Family (Phrymaceae).

All Maple Family (Aceraceae) genera including Maple (Acer) are now in the Soapberry Family (Sapindaceae).

All Waterleaf Family (Hydrophyllaceae) genera including Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum), Fiddleleaf  (Nama), and Scorpion Weed (Phacelia) are now in the Borage Family (Boraginaceae).

All Pyrola Family (Pyrolaceae) genera including Single Delight (Moneses), One-sided Wintergreen (Orthilia), and Pyrola (Pyrola) are now in the Heath Family (Ericaceae).

Almost all Goosefoot Family (Chenopodiaceae) genera including Saltbush (Atriplex), Goosefoot (Chenopodium), Hop Sage (Grayia), Saltlover (Halogeton), Winter Fat (Krascheninnikovia), Poverty Weed (Monolepis), Green Molly (Neokochia), and Tumble Weed (Salsola) are now in the Amaranth Family (Amaranthaceae).
Greasewood (Sarcobatus) is in the Greasewood Family (Sarcobataceae).

All Milkweed Family (Asclepiadaceae) genera including Milkweed (Asclepias) are now in the Dogbane Family (Apocynaceae).

Many Lily Family (Liliaceae) genera are in new families:
Onions (Allium) are in the Amaryllis Family (Amaryllidaceae);
Sand Lily (Androstephium) and Giant Onion (Triteleia) are in the Asparagus Family (Asparagaceae);
Corn Lily (Veratrum) and Death Camas (Anticlea) are in the False Hellebore Family (Melanthiaceae);
Solomon's Plume & Star Lily (Maianthemum) are in the Asparagus Family (Asparagaceae);
Sand Lily (Eremocrinum) is in the Asparagus Family (Asparagaceae).

Most Purslane Family (Portulacaceae) genera including Spring Beauty (Claytonia), Bitterroot (Lewisia), Fameflower (Phemeranthus) are now in the Miner's Lettuce Family (Montiaceae).

All Mistletoe Family (Viscaceae) genera including Ponderosa Mistletoe (Arceuthobium) and Juniper Mistletoe (Phoradendron) are now in the Sandalwood Family (Santalaceae).

Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia) is now in the Staff-tree Family (Celastraceae), not in either the Saxifrage Family (Saxifragaceae) or the Grass-of-Parnassus Family (Parnassiaceae.

Burreed (Sparganium) is now in the Cattail Family (Typhaceae), not in the Burreed Family (Sparganiaceae).

All Mare's Tale Family (Hippuridaceae) genera including Hippuris are now in the Plantain Family (Plantaginaceae).

St. Johnswort (Hypericum) is now in the St. Johnswort Family (Hypericaceae), not in the Scotch Attorney Family (Clusiaceae).

Hackberry (Celtis) is now in the Hemp Family (Cannabaceae), not in the Elm Family (Ulmaceae).

Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) is now in the Heath Family (Ericaceae), not in the Pinesap Family (Monotropaceae).

Bee Plants (Cleomella) are now in the Cleome Family (Cleomaceae), not the Caper Family (Capparaceae).

Click here to see a list of all families according to the APG classification.

Click for Walt Fertig's succinct discussion of the APG families.

Click for a nice discussion of APG in Wikipedia.

Click for the very complex APG details.

Click for the May, 2016 APG IV discussion and updates.


Common Names for Plant Families

Some of the most often used American English common family names and their scientific name equivalents are listed in the following table. You will notice that a few families have several commonly used names: Asteraceae is called the Sunflower Family, Aster Family, Composite Family, or Daisy Family.  On this website I call Asteraceae the Sunflower Family. There is no organization that sets standards for common names, but the following names are widely accepted across the United States.

Family Name
Family Name
Amaranth Amaranthaceae
Asparagus Asparagaceae
Aster, Sunflower,
Daisy, Composite
Cat Tail
Century Plant
Daisy, Sunflower,
Aster, Composite

Evening Primrose
False Hellebore
Grass of Parnassus
Indian Pipe
Lady's Slipper
Mare's Tail
Morning Glory
St. Johnswort
Sunflower, Daisy,
Aster, Composite
Wood Sorrel



Pronunciation.  For many people pronouncing botanical scientific names is a perplexing and intimidating task.  It is a prime reason that some people balk at using scientific names.

Do your best at pronouncing the scientific name and you will be understood. Anyone who laughs at you, wrinkles their nose at you, or mocks you for your pronunciation, is not worth associating with.

William Stearn, 20th century authority on botanical Latin (his book Botanical Latin is a standard) states,

"How [scientific names] are pronounced really matters little provided they sound pleasant and are understood by all concerned." 

Stearn does give several basic principles for pronouncing scientific Latin:

1) "The pronunciation of a word is determined by the sounds of the individual letters, the length... of the vowels, and the place of accent".  

2) Pronounce every vowel. There are exceptions (of course), for instance, when two vowels come together.

3) When a person's name is part of a scientific name, pronounce it as close as possible to the actual way the person would say their name. Thus Stearns is indicating that for Thomas Nuttall we should say "Nuttall iana", not "Nuh tall i ana". A number of names are however, not of English origin and this presents a problem. What is the proper pronunciation of "Krascheninnikovia"?

I like two further points made by Gleason in his 1932 article in "Torreya":

1) Keep word roots intact, i.e., pronounce "ammophila" as "ammo phila" (sand loving), not  "am moph eh la". Say "Dryo pteris" (wood  fern), not "Dry op teris";  "hetero thee ca" (varying seeds), not "heter oth eh ca". Keeping word roots together can conflict with another rule of botanical Latin pronunciation: emphasize the third to the last syllable. "Heter oth eh ca" emphasizes the third to last syllable. "Hetero theca" keeps the word roots intact: "Hetero" is Greek for "different" and "theca" is Greek for "case", i.e., "seeds". Heterotheca ray and disk flowers have different shaped seeds.  I think keeping word roots intact helps us understand the meaning of words.

2) Gleason makes another point which I agree with, but almost all American botanists disagree with. Gleason really dislikes pronouncing "ii" word endings as "ee  eye" as in "Nuttallii" pronounced "Nuh tall ee eye"  or  "Haydenii" pronounced "Hay den ee eye". Gleason pronounces these words as "Nuttall ee" and "Hayden ee", that is, with a long e at the end, not with a long e followed by "eye". It is my experience that most botanists who are not Americans conform to Gleason's suggestion. Most botanists who are Americans do not.

Colorado flora expert, William Weber, agrees with Gleason: "The letter "i" should always be pronounced "ee." This goes for the double ii, which may be given as either one or two syllables", "e" or "e e". 

Pronunciation of family names

I pronounce family names so that the "aceae" that ends all family names is pronounced  a (as in ace)   c  (see)  e  (as in  street): 
Ass ter a c e
Scrow few larry a c e
Fab a c e
Rose a c e .

Another common pronunciation of family names is "a c a" instead of "a c e":
Ass ter a c a
Scrow few larry a c a
Fab a c a
Rose a c a.  

Be absolutely assured that even expert botanists, even those who consider themselves well-versed in botanical pronunciations, DO NOT AGREE ABOUT HOW TO PRONOUNCE BOTANICAL NAMES. The differences come about because of the use of classical versus modern Latin pronunciation, because of the fact that a significant number of botanical names are in Greek (so how should they be Latinized?), and because of many other factors, primary among them, habit. Botanists learned plant names and pronunciation of those names when they were in college and I have met many botanists who say, "That's the name (or pronunciation) that I learned in school and that's the name (or pronunciation) that I will stick with!"

Many scientific names have made their way into the common name vocabulary: Geranium, Delphinium, Aster, Gentian, Orchid, Penstemon, Rose, Saxifrage, etc.

Kids readily pronounce and remember Latin botanical names. Mind-blocks stop the rest of us, but once we attempt it and master it, we find that using scientific names allows us to communicate about plants much more easily.  

Get in the habit of using scientific names and you can walk a trail, meet someone who speaks a foreign language, and the two of you can still talk about plants.  Chinese language scientific names for plants are the same as English language scientific names.


Synonyms:  Scientific names can change because continued study of a plant may show the plant to have been incorrectly classified. Although a plant may have had various scientific names attached to it over the years, only one name is currently accepted by the author of the book or website you are using. The previously accepted names are called "synonyms".  This is a special botanical use of the word "synonym", for in standard usage "synonym" means, "a word having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word".  Such synonyms can often be used interchangeably.  But botanical synonyms are not interchangeable.  Only one name is accepted and synonyms should not be used as a substitute for the currently accepted name.  Lists of synonyms can be found online (on this website, for instance) and in detailed botanical books.

This all sounds very precise and very orderly.  Unfortunately it isn't.  Plant authorities often do not agree on what the name for a plant should be; one authority's name for a plant may be another authority's synonym.  Such is the case for a number of plants in this website.  As I indicated above, having a number of scientific names floating around at the same time is messy, confusing, and irritating.  The botanical community needs a regional, national, or international committee to review proposed name changes and issue a list of currently accepted names.  Lack of funding, lack of interest, and petty pride and politics have stopped this from happening.  Perhaps egos have the most to do with it: There isn't much of a drive to standardize scientific names when scientists say, "Well that's the name I learned for the plant when I was in college, and that's the name I'll stick with".  Or, "I'm the authority on plants in this state and I'll use whatever names I think are best."

On this website I try to steer through this mess by using plant names given by John Kartesz's Synthesis of the Flora of North America. Kartesz's Synthesis (available soon as a DVD) describes plants, provides over 150,000 photographs, and gives county by county records of every plant in North America.) On this website, Kartesz's names are in bold and are first for every plant. Most of Kartesz's work on plant names and plant distributions is now available online. In particular, see his fantastic Taxonomic Data Center

Let's look in more detail at how several scientific names might get attached to one plant.

One way is very common even today: an expert on a genus concludes after years of thorough research that several members of this genus really belong in a different, perhaps even new, genus.  Research does take time to get disseminated, reviewed, and accepted.  While this acceptance is coming, some botanists may continue using the old genus name.  Three examples from this website: the genera Gilia, Arabis, and Senecio.

Another scenario:  Imagine that you are a collector in the Colorado mountains in 1840.  You are an accomplished, experienced botanist so you take it upon yourself to name and describe the plants you have been collecting.  You find that one of your plants is unknown to you and you give it a new genus name, but here in the wilderness you do not have access to the latest botanical books from Massachusetts and London.  Years later, you or someone else reviews your collection or compares your description with previously published descriptions and it is realized that your plant had been found and named prior to your naming it. The earlier name is accepted.  The name you gave the plant is now just a synonym and no longer accepted.

The same scenario has been played out with many variations. For instance, the botanist/classifiers in Massachusetts might receive a collection of plants from you and find several unknown specimens.  They search all available literature, find no reference to the new plants, and, therefore, give them a new genus and species name.  But the same scene was being acted out in London at Kew Gardens from a collection returned to them by a collector they had financially supported.  They find the same new plants that you in Massachusetts had just given new names.  They give the plants new names.  Which are the accepted names?  That will be based on The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature which states that the earliest name takes precedence.

Another very common scenario is the misnaming of a plant: someone in Massachusetts assigns the plant to the genus Aster but a later examination of that plant (the "type" specimen) shows it to be a TownsendiaAster becomes just a synonym. (This is precisely what happened with Townsendia.)

Finally, here are two common misunderstandings about names:

1) The person who finds a plant, names the plant.  Not necessarily so.  Usually not so.  Most plants are collected by one person, named by another.  Some people like collecting and roaming the hills, some like studying minutia in an office.

2) The person who finds a plant gets the plant named for them.  No.  About 75% of the plants on this website are named for a characteristic (hairy, smooth) of that plant, or for the place the plant was collected (Missouriensis, Virginiana, Canadensis), or are derived from history (the name might come to us from an ancient country), or show a relationship (similarity to another species).  When the plant is named for a person, it may be for a person who never saw the plant, it may be for a famous person (botanist or not), or it may be for the person who collected the plant.

Most common wildflower books rely on some regional botanical authority's detailed book for their plant names, and it is in this book, not the common wildflower picture book, that you will find the accepted scientific name and its synonyms listed.  Most scientific plant names are agreed on and are identical from one book to another, but when there are differences (and many plants have had a number of scientific names over the years) you will find that common wildflower picture books are least likely to have the presently accepted scientific name, regional authorities are much more likely, and constantly updated online data bases are most likely.

The most widely accepted authorities for the names of plants in the United States are the Synthesis of the North American Flora (available soon on a DVD from the Biota of North America Program) and the Flora of North America Project. Most of Kartesz's work on plant names and plant distributions is now available online. In particular, see his fantastic Taxonomic Data Center.

Genetic analysis led to many major changes in plant classification.  Numerous families and genera were rearranged and will continue to be rearranged in the future.  You can read about these changes: in the Utah Native Plant Society newsletter and on the Missouri Botanical Garden website.

See Descriptions and Type in the Glossary for further discussion.

A Brief History of Scientific Names 

Plants have, of course, been named for thousands of years.  Before the written word, the verbal naming of plants allowed people to communicate about a plant's location, uses, dangers, etc.  From the time of the Greeks (especially Aristotle and his student Theophrastus) written plant names were grouped and classified based on a system that served their purposes of the ordering of nature, gathering and using plants for medicinal purposes, etc.  For several centuries these systems formed the basis of plant classification until Dioscorides wrote his De Materia Medica (c. 64 A.D.), which classified over 600 medicinally used plants.  Dioscorides' work remained the cornerstone of Western plant classification until major cultural changes came to the West in the 1500's: science bloomed, explorers brought thousands of new plants from around the world to be classified, and interest grew in learning about all plants (not just medicinal ones).  Because of all this, the old systems of lengthy, non-standardized names were found to be unworkable.

Many individuals attempted to provide a more workable classification system.  Of major importance was John Ray (1627-1705) of England who in 1682 wrote Methodus Plantarum which promoted the species as the ultimate taxonomic unit and utilized for the first time the categories "monocotyledons" and "dicotyledons".  From 1686-1704 Ray published his master work, Historia Plantarum, a three volume work on over 18,000 plants.  In these volumes Ray broke with past classification systems by grouping plants on the basis of a number of their characteristics. Until Ray (and after him for many years) plants were grouped according to one major characteristic such as the color, flower structure, or medicinal use.  Many of Ray's family groupings are still with us.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) of Sweden built upon the work of Ray and many others and is now credited with providing the foundation of modern taxonomy.  Classifying was a natural outgrowth of Linnaeus' youthful collecting of plants. animals, and rocks; his position as a Doctor (medicines were, of course, plant-based); and his interest in introducing new plants to benefit the economy of his native Sweden. 

Unlike Ray, Linnaeus set up his categories of genus and species solely on the basis of floral parts: class was determined by stamens and order by pistils.  This method placed very different plants in similar groupings and taxonomists eventually abandoned the floral groupings in favor of methods proposed in varying ways by John Ray, Bernard de Jussieu (1699-1777), Antoine L. de Jussieu (1748-1836), Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (1778-1841), and others. Work of these individuals led to classifying by examining the entire plant, not just the floral parts.

But Linnaeus' use of hierarchical classification and binomial nomenclature remains the basis of our present classification system.  Linnaeus took each grouping of plants and placed it under another grouping of plants that shared similar characteristics. Over the last centuries taxonomists have changed and rearranged some of Linnaeus' groupings, but we still retain the basic Linnaean structure.

Linnaeus also remains important because of his world-wide view of botany.  Many of his students went on world explorations (his student, Daniel Solander was the naturalist on Captain Cook's first trip around the world -- financed in large part by Sir Joseph Banks, who was also on the trip to collect plants) and brought Linnaeus specimens that fed his thirst for learning about and classifying plants. 

In his life-time Linnaeus named and classified nearly 12,000 species, and in 1753 Linnaeus published his monumental botanical work, Species Plantarum which ordered, named, and described over 6,000 plants.  Species Plantarum is recognized as a turning point in botanical nomenclature as it firmly entrenched the binomial classification system and began bringing order to a chaotic botanical taxonomy.  Dozens of genera and species in this "Southwest Colorado Wildflower" website were first named and described in Species Plantarum.

Linnaeus wrote many other works in addition to Species Plantarum. One work which was quite dear to him was his 1737 Flora Lapponica following his 1732 six month collecting expedition to Lapland. There for the first time he saw what became his favorite plant, Linnaea borealis, named for him by his friend and fellow naturalist, Jan Frederik Gronovius.

Linnaeus jokingly tells us about the naming of Linnaea borealis in his Critica Botanica: "It is commonly believed that the name of a plant which is derived from that of a botanist shows no connection between the two...[but]...Linnaea was named by the celebrated Gronovius and is a plant of Lapland, lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering but for a brief space -- after Linnaeus who resembles it."

Click for more biographical information about Linnaeus.