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Taxonomy, or Plant Names Made Easy

by Brent Walston


Taxonomy is the study of plant names and relationships. In any horticultural pursuit, and bonsai is just that, it is important to know exactly what plants we are growing so that we may intelligently talk about them without ambiguity. I'm going to make this short so you aren't bored to death.

The Binomial System

Plants have two names, this is called the binomial system. Their first name is their Genus (plural is Genera). Plants in the same genus are closely related and may interbreed with each other. If they do the resulting plant is a hybrid, identified by an X in the name.For example: All maples are in the same Genus: Acer.

The second part of the name is the species and follows the Genus. Plants in the same species always interbreed with each other, this is part of what makes a species a species. Example:Acer palmatum, palmatum is the species, this is Japanese Maple. An interesting point is that the species names are descriptive or sometimes someone's name. Palmatum is just what it sounds like- palm like, and refers to the shape of the leaf.


Now I know I just said that plants have two names, but there are 'Varieties' of plants, that occur naturally or through breeding. Manmade varieties are known as Cultivars, and this is a third part of the name.

So: Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood' is 1.Genus Acer (Maple) 2. Species palmatum (Japanese Maple) 3. Cultivar 'Bloodgood'. Cultivars must always be clones of the parent plant, they are genetically identical, therefore they are propagated by cutting, grafting, tissue culture or other means. A seedling of 'Bloodgood' cannot be called 'Bloodgood', because it will not be identical genetically, and will not show the same plant characteristics. Many people are confused by this. Cultivars are important because they insure that a plant will be exactly like the named plant.

Correct Fonts and Attributes

Now the finicky part, the Genus is always Capitalized, the species is always lower case, and the cultivar is always Capitalized and in single quotation mark('). If you want to be really picky, the Genus and species are always italicized and the cultivar is not.

What good is this?

For one thing, when you use the botanical name there is absolutely no confusion about what we are talking about. Each plant has its own individual name. How many Mock Oranges are there? Another thing, is that plants in the same Genus have similar characteristics, so this tells you something about the plant. For example, you see a plant marked Acer grosseri. Immediately you know it is a maple, it has opposite leaves, is probably a water lover and most likely has palmate, three or five lobed leaves.

Pronunciation of the Names:

This is probably the biggest reason people resist botanical names. First, let me say that there is no internationally accepted convention (unfortunately) for pronouncing the names, so you can't be wrong. Even experts disagree on how some things should be pronounced. For example: How do you say Gypsophila (Baby's Breath)? Some people say Gyp-sof-e-la with the accent on 'sof' and the others say Gyp-so-fee-la with the accent on the 'fee'. There ain't no right way, only what most people say.

One place where you can't go wrong is when a species or cultivar is named after a person, don't get fancy, just say the person's name and follow it with ee-eye (assuming you know how to pronounce the person's name!). For example, Blue Oak is Quercus douglasii, just say Quer-cus douglas-ee-eye. Two i's (ii) at the end of a name are always pronounced ee-eye.

And finally

Well, that's enough for now, I hope this helps.,

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