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Botanical names deciphered in France

Botanical names deciphered in France

Discussing plants in two languages can be a confusing affair. Trevor Bridge explains the meaning of botanical names, the one way to ensure we are all speaking the same language

Flaming June is upon us, when we look forward to exquisite, warm, sunny days throughout France. With the longest day of the year on the 21 June, we have many daylight hours to enjoy the garden.

Once the risk of frost is past, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes and cucumbers can be planted outdoors. This is usually after mid-May, but there is still time if you haven’t done so yet. As part of our crop rotation we plant these together – it is known as our ‘ratatouille bed’. We also grow chillies here, ensuring a cloche is placed over them and they are kept well watered as they need to make the best of the growing season. We freeze chillies whole ensuring a year-round supply. Salad greens, spinach, peas, French beans, carrots, radishes and beetroot can all be sown and, if you have not already done so, plant melons, pumpkins and squashes for harvesting later. We particularly enjoy butternut squash which store well over winter. To add colour indoors as well as outdoors, annual and biennial flowers can be sown now.

By July there is an abundance of fresh produce; crisp salad leaves, beetroot, spring onions, sweet tasting peas, beans, spinach and young courgettes. Continue sowing these in succession for continual cropping throughout the summer.
Pinch outside shoots of ‘indeterminate’ variety tomatoes to direct energy into fruit rather than leaves. Side shoots grow between the main stem and a leaf - make sure you are not pinching off the fruiting shoot! Indeterminate varieties form flowers along the sides of shoots and continue to produce fruit until killed by frost. Bush or ‘determinate’ varieties do not need pruning as they stop shoot production once flowers form on the ends and crop all at once. They are popular with commercial growers.

It’s important to make sure that plants do not get dry. To reduce wasting water through evaporation, water in the morning and late afternoon when it is cooler. Avoid wetting the leaves to prevent leaf scorch and soak thoroughly, don’t just splash. While the water is out, keep your bird baths topped up.

Ensure ‘ratatouille bed’ plants are tied to their supports. Check tall border plants to see if they need canes - our hollyhocks always need to be helped in this way. Tie in new shoots of clematis and other climbers. And, of course, weed regularly.


Many plants are known by different names in different countries and even vary from place to place in the same country. Sometimes the same common name can even refer to quite different plants, and while common names are easier to remember, they cause confusion. For instance, what is known in the UK as the Cowslip is called the Coucou here in France. However, its botanical name Primula veris is recognised throughout the world. True roses have the botanical name Rosa, however many plants have rose in their common name but are not true roses. For example: Christmas rose, cotton rose, guelder rose, Lenten rose, rock rose, rose of Sharon, and wood rose. In the UK the white water lily has fifteen common names, and if you include its French, Dutch and German names it has over 240 names. It is therefore extremely useful to have a way of correctly identifying plants, to be able to go to a garden centre in France, in the UK, or indeed anywhere else in the world, and ask for a plant by the same name. This is where the botanical name becomes important.


All plants, natural and cultivated, have botanical names based on an internationally recognised system developed by Carl Linnaeus, an 18th century Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician. This system, known as binomial nomenclature, provides a world-wide way to refer to any plant using the same name. Botanical names, often referred to as scientific names, are the only way to accurately identify plants and can be understood anywhere in the world.

Botanical names can seem baffling or a little daunting. They are frequently referred to as ‘Latin names’ which can be intimidating, creating the impression that a good knowledge of Latin is essential. This is incorrect though. Whilst Latin (and ancient Greek) words are often used in plant names, they are not specifically Latin. They should be referred to as botanical names, not Latin names. There is nothing mysterious about them and, as well as providing a unique name for a plant, the botanical name can often tell you where it originated, who discovered it, its colour, its shape and much more.

It is a good ruse to learn the botanical names of a few familiar plants so that you can impress people with your knowledge! You will know quite a number already as many plants are commonly known by their true botanical name. These include Acacia, Acanthus, Alyssum, Anemone, Begonia, Chrysanthemum, Clematis, Cotoneaster, Cyclamen, Delphinium, Euphorbia, Forsythia, Fuchsia, Geranium, Gypsophila, Hebe, Heuchera, Hibiscus, Hosta, Hydrangea, Nigella, Primula, Rhododendron, Verbascum, Veronica and many more.

The botanical name and the English and French common names are exactly the same for quite a number of familiar plants. These include Cosmos, Crocus, Dahlia, Geum, Iris, Phlox, Rhododendron, Sedum, Yucca and Zinnia.

The common name of Campanula is bellflower, but it is probably just as well known by its botanical name. The same can be said for plants such as Buddleia (butterfly bush), Acanthus (bear’s breeches), Pyracantha (Firethorn) and Nepeta (Catmint).

Others such as Gentiana, Laurus, Lavandula, Lupinus, Rosa, Rosmarinus, Scabiosa and Viola have common names that are easily worked out from their botanical names.

The first name of a plant is the ‘genus’; the second name is the ‘species’. Some plants have third names to denote ‘cultivars’.

Genus, the first part of the name, refers to a group of plants that share certain biological characteristics and comes from mythology, literature or refers to something the plant resembles. Daphne and Andromeda are from Greek mythology. Buddleia are named after botanist Rev. Adam Buddle, Deutzia after Dutch plant hunter J Deutz and Fuchsia after German botanist Leonard Fuchs. Genus is italicised and starts with a capital letter.

Vinca is the periwinkle genus.

Species, the second part of the name, can refer to the plant’s place of origin, habitat, discoverer, or characteristics. Species are classified by flower analysis for flowering plants and cone or seed analysis for conifers and other non-flowering plants. This is why plants with somewhat different foliage or form are often classified as the same species. Species is italicised and usually starts with a lower-case letter.

Vinca minor is the lesser periwinkle species. Vinca major is the greater periwinkle species.

Cultivar is a sub-division of a species or a variety and is a plant selected for desirable characteristics such as variegation or different forms of growth, foliage or flower. Most cultivars are the result of human intervention, although some are selected from the wild. Cultivar is written in single quotes, with a capital letter, and not italicised.

Vinca major ‘Variegata’ is a cultivar of the greater periwinkle species with variegated leaves.

Species names


arborea – tree-like

fastigiata – erect branches

horizontalis – horizontal spreading

nana – dwarf

pendula – weeping

prostrata – prostrate/ground hugging


alpina – alpine regions

arvense – fields/cultivated land

aquatica – growing in or by water

maritima – the sea

palustre – swamps/marshes

sylvatica – woods


australe – southern

boreale – northern

californica – California

croatica - Croatia

europea – Europe

hispanica – Spain

japonica – Japan

occidentale – western

orientale – eastern

sibirica - Siberia

sinense – China


crenata – with shallow-rounded teeth

glabra – without hairs

glutinosa – sticky

lanceolata – lance-shaped

latifolia – broad-leaved

macrophylla – large leaved 

nitida – soft

ovata – egg-shaped

pinnata – pinnate

serrata – saw-toothed

variegata – variegated/two coloured


campanulata – bell shaped

floribunda – free flowering

grandiflora – large flowered

nudiflora – without leaves

parviflora – small flowered

pauciflora – few flowered

polyantha – many flowered

spicata – flowers in spikes

stellata – star shaped

umbellata – flowers in umbels


alba – white

argenta – silvery

aurea – golden

bicolour – two coloured

cinerea – ash grey

coccinea – scarlet

glauca – sea green

nigra – black

purpurea – purple

rosea – rose coloured

rubra – red

sanguinia – blood red


aromatica – aromatic

citriodora – lemon

foetida – strong, unpleasant

fragrantissima – very fragrant

graveolens – unpleasant

oderata – sweet

moschata – musky

suaveolens – sweet


jasminea – jasmine like

liliflora – lily-flowered

pseudoplatanus – false plane

salicifolia – willow-like


delavayi – Abbé Delavay

harryanata – Sir Harry Veitch

henryana – Dr Augustine Henry

hookeri – Sir Joseph Hooker

willmotiana – Miss Ellen Willmott


bella – pretty

communis – plentiful

dulcis – sweet

edule – edible

florida – free-flowering

praecox – early

speciosa – showy

sativa – cultivated

utile – useful

vulgare - common

Trevor is a landscape architect who ran a busy practice in the UK for 20 years. He and his wife Jocelyn moved to an ancient fermette in Poitou-Charentes in 2004 where they garden organically and keep bees and hens.

© Living Magazine / Originally published June 2015