Herb Basics: Deciphering the Botanical Name

The Linnaeus classification system can help gardeners identify specific herb varieties.


Understanding botanical binomials

The binomial (“two-name”) system that botanists use for classifying and naming plants was devised by Carolus Linnaeus, an eighteenth-century Swedish biologist and botanist. It describes patterns of relationship and provides a means of organizing the complexity of nature.

The first part of a plant’s name gives its genus, the group to which it belongs and with which it shares many features. Both garlic and onions belong to the genus Allium. A plant’s species name consists of the genus name and a specific epithet, which indicates a group of individuals that have common attributes and can breed together. Garlic belongs to the Allium sativum species while onions belong to the A. cepa species. The abbreviation of the genus name to the first letter, as in A. cepa for Allium cepa, is used only when the genus is clear. Names enclosed in single quotation marks following species names indicate a single cultivated variety, or cultivar. Lady lavender’s botanical name, Lavandula angustifolia, is often followed by its cultivar name, ‘Lady,’ on nursery identification tags.

Many generic names come from the names of mythological figures, such as Achillea (yarrow) for Achilles and Artemisia for Artemis.



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