What is Botanical Nomenclature?

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  • Written By: N. Phipps
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
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  • Last Modified Date: 23 February 2020
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Botanical nomenclature is a worldwide system used for naming plants through the use of scientific names. Botanical nomenclature is considered one of the most reliable methods used for plant identification. Practiced in countries worldwide, botanical nomenclature is governed by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, or ICBM, which maintains rules and other recommendations for naming plants. According to the ICBN, this plant identification system began about 1753 and is said to have been developed by a Swedish scientist named by Carl von Linne, also known as Linnaeus. In order to accommodate newly bred plants and discoveries, the botanical nomenclature system is occasionally changed or amended. However, any changes must be made through the International Botanical Congress, or IBC.


Botanical nomenclature consists of a genus and species names, like a first and last name. The genus is simply the plant group to which it belongs. This word is always a noun and may refer to the plant's appearance or other features as well as its founder. The genus is generally capitalized and written in italics. The species name follows the genus and is also written in italics but remains in lowercase. The plant species differentiates it from all others. It may also be used to describe the plant's attributes and is always an adjective, which describes the genus name. For example, the species might describe its color, origin, or growth habit. Occasionally there is a third word in botanical nomenclature. This is oftentimes used to refer to a particular variety or cultivar. Hybrid species, or new varieties that have been cross pollinated, are typically preceded with an "x."

As each region around the world differs in some way, so do plant names. Keeping up with plant names is difficult enough, but imagine the confusion of having two plants with the same common name. Without a botanical name specifically designated for each of these plants, trying to find information about them would be much harder. For instance, bluebells are commonly grown flowers. However, there are other plants that also share this name. Since there can be several names for one plant or numerous plants sharing one name, using an accurate plant identification system prevents confusion. This is the reason behind botanical nomenclature. So when you want information about bluebells, look at the scientific name to distinguish separate plants. You may have a Hyacinthoides non-scripta or a Campanula rotundifolia -- both are known as bluebells.


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