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Why do we give plants names and labels?

January 25, 2023


This winter when you visit both of our campuses you will be able to clearly see plant labels hanging, attached to the stems of trees and shrubs, or on spikes in the ground. These can look like colorful credit cards or large flat zip ties. 

These plant labels will list the scientific name and, if there is one, the cultivar of the plant. If you like the plant, please take a photo of the tag. But don’t take the tag itself! We frown on that.

The tags are present all year round but are easiest to find in the winter. So, I thought it would be fun to take a moment to talk about plant names and why they are important.  

Plants have common names and scientific names. The common name is what local people in that area call the plant. This varies by country, by state/province, or even by city! Also, different plants may have the same common name. For example, take a look at this plant:

                                                            Photo by Jake Goossen on Unsplash

It can be called: snake plant, viper’s bowstring hemp, St. George’s sword, mother-in-law’s tongue, good luck plant, golden birds nest, African bowstring-hemp, spear plant, and 虎尾兰!

Scientific plant names are the opposite; each plant has exactly one name accepted worldwide for that specific plant. This system is called binomial nomenclature because each name has two parts. The first part is the plant’s genus, and the second part is a “specific epithet” that identifies the type of plant uniquely. Put together, in binomial nomenclature, the genus and specific epithet name the species.

For example, the plant pictured above is in the genus “Dracaena”, and has the specific epithet “trifasciata”, so its species is “Dracaena trifasciata”. The genus should be italicized with the first letter capitalized, and the specific epithet should also be italicized but with all lower-case letters, so formally it should be written like so: Dracaena trifasciata.

Binomial nomenclature is based on Latin and follows rules created by Carl von Linne (pen name Linnaeus) in the 18th century, to give globally consistent names to all living things.

On a plant label you might also see additional information, if needed, like the plant cultivar, hybrids, variety, patents, and trademarks.

So, why are scientific names important? Because they are the same everywhere in the world, which facilitates a clear exchange of information and knowledge about plants and animals. It eliminates any confusion about what plant people are talking about, no matter where they come from or how they usually refer to it.

So, for example, if you go to Thailand and see an interesting tree, even though you could not read the common name in Thai, you can still look up the scientific name and learn about it!

Teak tree, photo by Kristina Arthur

Learn more about scientific names, binomial nomenclature, cultivars, hybrids, varieties, patents, and trademarks at a fantastic web page by Oregon State University.

Kristina Arthur

Kristina Arthur


Kristina Arthur joined Holden Forests and Gardens in 2019 as the Hershey Children's Garden Coordinator, in the Education department. She moved to the Kirtland campus and the Horticulture department in June of 2022, where she oversees the Rhododendron Discovery Garden and the R. Henry Norweb Jr. Tree Allée. Her prior experience includes The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, University Hospitals Angie's Garden and the Horticultural Therapy suite, and Cleveland Metroparks. She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and Case Western Reserve University and has a certificate in Horticultural Therapy. Kristina lives in Chardon with her husband and two sons.

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