Learning about Wildflowers: Scientific Names and Plant Families

To learn more about common vs. scientific names and noxious weeds (invasive plants), take a look at the Northwest Coloring Book.

Who made using Latin, binomial scientific names standard?

Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) was a naturalist in Sweden.  While he did not create the idea of using Latin binomials, he used them to identify and classify plants in his book Species Plantarum ("The Kinds of Plants).  "Binomial" means two-terms or two words.  After Linnaeus' book, Latin binomial scientific names became the standard.

Fun fact:  Carolus Linnaeus' name was originally Carl von Linné.  He changed his name to Carolus Linnaeus because he thought Latin binomials were such a wonderful idea!

What exactly is a scientific name?

Each known kind of plant or animal is given a scientific name by scientists.  Standard scientific names are written in Latin and are in italics or are underlined.  No two plants are allowed to have the same scientific name, allowing scientists all over the world to discuss and recognize the same plant because the scientific name for a species will always the same Latin name no matter what language you speak.

As you read above, scientific names, or species names, have two terms or words.  The first word is the genus name and the second word is the specific epithet.  A genus is a group of several species of plants or animals.  The specific epithet identifies exactly which plant or animal it is out of the whole genus.  If you think about it, a genus name is like your last name and the specific epithet is like your first name.

Take for example one of the wildflowers in the coloring book, the Common Sunflower.  Its scientific name is Helianthus annuus.  That makes Helianthus the genus name and annuus the specific epithet.  Because it is in the Helianthus genus, you know that it is closely related to another Helianthus in the list, Helianthus maximiliani.  The specific epithet lets you know that annuus is not the same as maximiliani, even if they are related.

Some of the wildflowers in the list have more than two terms in their scientific names, such as Linum rigidum var. berlandieri and Argemone albiflora ssp. texana.  In both of those two cases, the first two words are the genus and specific epithet, as you learned above.  The additional words simply help to identify the plant even more specifically from others that are similar.  "var." means variety and "ssp." means sub-species.

What is a plant family?

A family is a group of several animal or plant genera (the plural of genus).  Family names can also come in a scientific (Latin) version and a common (English or another non-Latin language) version.

An example from the coloring book would be the Compositae or Sunflower Family.  There are a lot of genera in this group, including Centaurea, Coreopsis, Engelmannia, Eupatorium, Gaillardia, Helianthus, Hymenopappus, Hymenoxys, Liatris, Lindheimera, Melampodium, Ratibida, Rudbeckia, Solidago, Thelesperma, Vernonia, Viguiera, and Zexmenia.

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