Botanical Names Demystified

Let’s face it; scientific names are hard to remember.  Professional botanists smushed together words from ancient languages, proper nouns, and plant descriptions to create a name unique to a plant species.  While common names can vary across regions, scientific names are distinct to a given plant species.  For example, Coreopsis palmata is called prairie coreopsis in Illinois but is called tickseed in Missouri.  So like it or not, scientific names are here to stay.  Here are five explanations of scientific names to help make botanical names easier to remember (and a little fun).

Common Name: wild columbine

Scientific Name: Aquilegia canadensis

Definitions: Aquilegia means eagle’s claw and refers to the spur on the back of the flowers.

Canadensis means the species was originally described in Canada.

Columbine refers to the spur of the flower resembling the silhouette of a dove.

Common Name: prairie coreopsis or tickseed

Scientific Name: Coreopsis palmata

Definitions:  Coreopsis is ancient Greek for resembling a tick in reference to the tick-like appearance of the mature seeds.

Palmata is a reference to the leaves resembling an outstretched hand.

Common Name: swamp or rose milkweed

Scientific Name: Asclepias incarnata

Definitions: Asclepias is derived from an ancient Greek, Aesculapius, who was known for his knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants.

Incarnata describes flesh-colored flowers.

Common Name: Missouri evening primrose

Scientific Name: Oenothera macrocarpa

Definitions: Oenothera refers to the wine-scented flowers.

Macrocarpa describes the two- to three-inch seed pods produced by this species.

Common Name: purple coneflower

Scientific Name: Echinacea purpurea

Definitions: Echinacea translates to “hedgehog” in reference to the prickly flower head.

Purpurea, believe it or not, means purple.