The Botanical Name Game: About Plant Names and Recent Changes in Botanical Nomenclature

Header image: Carl von Linné by Alexander Roslin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Guided by new information obtained from sequencing plant DNA, botanists have been, for the last several years, renaming species and reordering members of plant families to more accurately reflect the evolutionary relationships between plants. This has resulted in many changes to plant names. All of this new information is one of the reasons that the University of Washington's Burke Museum Herbarium is currently revising C. Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist's classic Flora of the Pacific Northwest. Originally published in 1973, this plant identification manual

remains a vital resource for academic researchers, federal and state agency botanists, land managers, undergraduate and graduate students, and amateur botany enthusiasts. At the time of publication, users of the Flora could arrive at a currently accepted name for nearly all taxa within the region when using the keys provided. Today those same keys would achieve a similar result for only 47% of the region's taxa. (from  A New Flora of the Pacific Northwest)

The projected release date for the updated version is spring 2017. As all of us plant nerds excitedly await its arrival, I thought it might be useful for herbalists to have a list of name changes to medicinal plants that I learned as I was writing Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 120 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness. Below you will find a short writeup on Plant Names excerpted from my book followed by a list of name changes and family reordering as well as some tips to pronouncing latin names, a section that was edited out of the final manuscript.

Plant Names
Plants have two types of names: a scientific name and a common name. The scientific name, also known as a Latin binomial, comprises two words written in italics, such as Oplopanax horridus (the name for devil’s club). Oplopanax refers to the genus, a grouping of closely related plants that share similar physical characteristics and common genetics. This part of the name is capitalized. The second part of the name, horridus, known as the specific epithet refers to the species and is written lowercase. As a rule, plants that look very similar and are able to produce fertile offspring together are considered to be of the same species.

Some people may feel intimidated by scientific names, but they often help us understand various morphological, geographical, or historical aspects of the plant. For example, both the genus and species names of Saint John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum, have stories to tell. Hypericum comes from the Greek words hyper (meaning “over or above”) and icon (“image”). It was understood that when people worked with Saint John’s wort, the image or spirit of the plant watched over them. In ancient times it was hung above doorways to keep negative spirits away. Today we ingest the tincture to relive depression that may be caused by negative thought forms. The specific epithet, perforatum, reminds us that the leaves have holes or perforations in them.

As you familiarize yourself with botanical terminology, you will find many useful hints about plants based on the words used to name them. For example, the word glabra means “smooth” or “without hairs,” glauca means “covered in a whitish or bluish waxy coating or bloom,” and trifolium means three-leaved. The specific epithets officinale or officinalis are used to denote species within a genus that are preferred for use as medicine, such as Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) and Melissa officinalis (lemon balm).

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) flower heads close in the late afternoon and open again at dawn.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) flower heads close in the late afternoon and open again at dawn.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The scientific names have other things to tell us as well. The species name of Umbellularia californica tells us that California bay is primarily found in California, although an alternate common name, Oregon myrtlewood, tells us something else. The suffix -ensis added to the end of a species’ name means “of that place,” as in Solidago canadensis (Canada goldenrod). The suffix -oides is used to denote a morphological relation to another species. For example, the name Scutellaria antirrhinoides tells us that the flowers of this species of skullcap look like those of the genus Antirrhinum, the snapdragons, and indeed one of the common names of S. antirrhinoides is snapdragon skullcap.

Snapdragon Skullcap (Scutellaria antirrhinoides). The reddish tinged ridge on the calyx gives the skullcaps their name.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Snapdragon Skullcap (Scutellaria antirrhinoides)The reddish tinged ridge on the calyx gives the skullcaps their name.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Plants may also be named after the botanist who first described them or as a way for this person to honor someone else. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) was named after the German botanist Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz who accompanied Adelbert von Chamisso, the man who named the plant, on a Russian scientific expedition to the west coast of North America in the early 1800s.

With the arrival of DNA sequencing to more accurately determine the genetic relationships between plants, the scientific names, which were intended to remove confusion in nomenclature, are currently undergoing a lot of change and creating some measure of confusion. Although truly understanding the evolutionary links between plants is a useful endeavor, the current upheaval is creating difficulty for those of us who just want to be able to align ourselves with others regarding plant names.

By Sjef (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sjef (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is of particular concern to herbalists who, like me, develop a fondness for the names of plants. For two centuries Oregon grape was known as Mahonia nervosa, but it is now considered a member of the Berberis genus. It’s as if someone told you that your grandmother, who you’ve known all of your life as Molly, should now be called Gertrude. It’s just weird. However, in this book I use the currently accepted scientific names and note the previously used names. We can only hope that the rapidly changing, botanical name game will subside soon so we can all be on the same page regarding plant names.

Common names are the names most often used when speaking of plants, but their use alone may cause confusion, because the same plant may have many different common names. In addition, completely unrelated plants may share the same common name. There are many plants around the world, for example, that go by the name woundwort, but there is only one Stachys chamissonis var. cooleyae.

(Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 120 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness. pp. 14-15)

Coastal Hedgenettle (Stachys chamissonis var. cooleyae). Vibrant flowers, sweet with nectar, are a favorite of hummingbirds. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Coastal Hedgenettle (Stachys chamissonis var. cooleyae). Vibrant flowers, sweet with nectar, are a favorite of hummingbirds. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Tips for Pronouncing Latin Names

Don’t worry too much about how you pronounce the names—there is no correct way. The most important thing is for others to be able to understand what you are saying. Here a few guidelines that have been recommended as means of making pronunciation easier:  

1. Pay attention to the way others pronounce the names.
2. Speak each syllable separately with each vowel forming a distinct syllable. For example, when pronouncing vulgare, say “vul-gar-ree” rather than “vul-gair.”
3. Follow #2 except when a proper name is included. For menziesii, say “men-zees-ee-eye” rather than “men-zee-ess-ee-eye.”
4. Don’t break up word roots or proper names when stressing the prominent syllable. For example, the name Heracleum should be stressed on the third syllable to avoid breaking up the name Heracles to which it refers.

California Bayberry (Morella californica). Catkins of reddish brown female flowers ripen into purplish waxy berries traditionally used to make candles. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

California Bayberry (Morella californica). Catkins of reddish brown female flowers ripen into purplish waxy berries traditionally used to make candles. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.


Some Recent Changes to Botanical Nomenclature for Medicinal Plants

Genus and Species Name Shifts

  • Black Cottonwood: Populus balsamifera subsp. trichocarpa to P. trichocarpa
  • Bladderwrack: Fucus gardneri to F. distichus

  • California Bayberry: Myrica californica to Morella californica

  • Cascade Oregon Grape: Mahonia nervosa to Berberis nervosa

  • Cascara Sagrada: Rhamnus purshiana to Frangula purshiana

  • Coastal Hedgenettle: Stachys cooleyae to Stachys chamissonis var. cooleyae

  • Cow Parsnip: Heracleum lanatum to H. maximum

  • False Solomon's Seal: Smilacina racemosa to Maianthemum racemosum subsp. amplexicaule

  • Feverfew: Chrysanthemum parthenium to Tanacetum parthenium

  • Fireweed: Epilobium angustifolium to Chamerion angustifolium

  • Gumweed: Grindelia spp. to G. hirsutula. Recently several distinct species, some hairy and some not, of the highly variable genus Grindelia have been grouped under the name G. hirsutula. Though this may seem confusing, rest assured that any species of gumweed you encounter in this region will make good medicine.

  • Labrador Tea: Ledum groenlandicum to L. palustre subsp. groenlandicum

  • Lungwort: Sticta pulmonaria to Lobaria pulmonaria. This name change happened a while back, but if you are referencing texts from the early part of the 20th century, you will find this lichen listed as Sticta.

  • Oxeye Daisy: Chrysanthemum leucanthemum to Leucanthemum vulgare

  • Waxy Coneflower: Rudbeckia californica var. glauca to R. glaucescens

  • Yerba Buena: Satureja douglasii to Micromeria douglasii

Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum). The large anthers at the ends of the stamens produce lots of yellow pollen.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum). The large anthers at the ends of the stamens produce lots of yellow pollen.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.


Family Reordering

  • Blue Elder: plants in the genus Sambucus were moved from the Honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) to the Moschatel family (Adoxaceae)

  • False Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum racemosum) is now in the Asparagus family (Asparagaceae)

  • Western Trilium (Trillium ovatum) was moved from the Lily family (Liliaceae) to the Melanthiaceae family. The Lily family (Liliaceae) was split into many different families.

  • Yerba Santa: plants in the genus Eriodictyon were moved from the Waterleaf family (Hydrophyllaceae) to the Borage family (Boraginaceae)