Plants will often have two kinds of name; a common name and an official classification name.
The common name would be a name by which most people would know the plant. The name that your parents or grandparents or friends will likely call a plant, for example a buttercup.
This is great, until you find out that your friend refers to the same plant as a cuckooflower and your cousin from another county laughs at you both for giving funny names to what is clearly a blisterwort.
In fact, according to the Royal Horticultural Society, the buttercup may be know by any one of the following common names:
- meadow buttercup
- blister flower
- blister plant
- butter cress
- butter daisy
- butter rose
- common buttercup
- common crowflower
- common crowfoot
- gold balls
- gold knobs
- gold knots
- horse gold
- meadow crowfoot
- meadow cup
- meadow ranunculus
- upright crowfoot
- water milfoil
- yellow gowan
Originally, any scientific studies of plants would have referred to them by complex latin names.
Luckily for us a botanist from Sweden, Carl Linnaeus, decided enough was enough with sketchy naming; believing the latin names to be unnecessarily lengthy and often complicated. Linnaeus devised his own naming system called binomial nomenclature. Literally, using a two word name to describe an exact plant.
This new system was adopted universally and gives us the official classification name which a botanist or plant supplier would use. In the case of the buttercup, this name would be Ranunculus acris.
Linnaeus' system means that plant names are constructed like this:
Genus species 'Variety/Cultivar'
The italics and capitalisation are important and very much part of the accepted naming format.
The genus is the name of the first taxonomical category in to which a particular plant fits.
A genus appears as the first word and should be written in italic script with a capital letter.
The species is the group within a genus to which a plant conforms.
A species appears as the second word and should be written in italic script only in lower case.
Variety or Cultivar
Today, as plants have naturally evolved and been developed by humans, there is often a need for a third part to be added to the name. The third part is either a variety or a cultivar.
A variety is a difference in the plant that has evolved naturally; a clear variation within the original genus and species.
A cultivar is a difference in the plant that has been cultivated by the intervention of humans. You'll notice that cultivars often bear the names of celebrities or more common sounding names.
Any variety or cultivar name should be written in inverted commas in title case i.e. with a capital letter beginning each word. For example, a variety could be 'Variegatum' and a cultivar could be 'Crimson King'. No need for italics here.
Sometimes Carl Linnaeus is referred to as Carl von Linné as this is the name he chose to take at the time of his knighthood. Further reading on Linnaeus can be found here