Herb Basics: Understand Genus Names Better

In Herbs for Health, we include two names in italics after most common plant names. These names are part of a system called binomial nomenclature, which is Latin for “two-name designation,” and they tell you first, the genus, and second, the species of the plant.

We include these names ­because many different plants are called by the same name, such as ginseng, which includes the relatives Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Ginseng can also mean Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus, also called eleuthero), which has comparable uses to Asian ginseng, but which, as the Latin name indicates, is a completely different genus and species.

Taking the wrong herb means that you may not get the effect you’re looking for: Asian ginseng is considered “warming and invigorating” and effective for boosting energy, athletic performance, and mental sharpness; American ginseng is considered more “cooling” and better for supporting the adrenal glands, regulating metabolism, and increasing fluids. (For more information, see “Ginseng: Facts and Folklore” on page 34 of the March/April 1997 Herbs for Health.)

Another reason we use Latin botanical names is that a single plant can have many common names. Did you know, for example, that Echinacea pallida has also gone by the names purple coneflower, Kansas snakeroot, red-sunflower, hedgehog coneflower, and droops?

Source: Coffey, Timothy. The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

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