I’ll start this post by saying that I was trained as a research scientist and my heroes are Linnaeus and Gregor Mendel. Is anyone still reading after that sentence? If so, I’ll tell you what’s so great about scientific names.
For starters, they’re a good way to impress people. My family often accuses me of making them up on the spot whenever I’m asked about a plant. “Oh, that’s Eschscholzia alba,” I reply breezily. Or “That looks like ‘Schizocarpus aureus’ although they’re rare in this area.” I’m being flippant, and it’s easy to be that way about hard core science, but the serious truth is that using scientific names shows that you’re making the effort to learn about the plant world, and for a dedicated gardener, that’s an important step.
In biology, all living things are classified into a hierarchy, starting at the broadest level with groups like bacteria, plants, animals, and going down into smaller and smaller subdivisions. The last three levels are family, genus and species. Every plant has a two-part scientific name made up of the genus name and species name. Papaver is a genus name – the genus of poppies. But not all poppies are the same, so there are species within that genus, including commutatum. Papaver commutatum is the correct scientific name for one type of poppy. The family name isn't part of the plant's scientific name, but it gives a clue to which other plants are related. Papaver commutatum is in the family Papaveraceae, and when you look up Shirley poppies, you'll see that they're in the same family.
The correct way to write these names is to italicize both parts and capitalize the genus name but not the species name. In this blog I’m usually too lazy to do that, but if I were writing this for a book to be published, I would write Papaver commutatum.
The main benefit of scientific names is that they’re agreed upon and accepted worldwide, whereas common names like daisy or primrose or jonquil can be used for different flowers, depending on local custom and language.
Another benefit is that learning the names lets you see how things are related. The family names show you how plants are similar. You don’t need a degree in botany or a botany textbook (although those won’t hurt). Wikipedia always lists the class, order, family, genus and species. You’ll see that the family Solanaceae contains tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco. The family Rosaceae contains both roses and apples. Amaryllidaceae contains daffodils and onions.
Annnie Hayes, the founder of Annie’s Annuals and Perennials Nursery, made a big impression on me when I heard her give an informal talk at my local nursery. Annie’s website is full of charming descriptions, whimsical illustrations and wild color everywhere. Annie in person was entertaining and funny. But she was also a hard-core botanist. She rattled off scientific names for all the plants she talked about, and it didn’t sound pretentious—it sounded serious and real, because Annie is a pro. It showed that she knew what she was talking about.
Even if you’re not running a nursery, it’s a good thing to know more about what you’re doing, including the correct names of what you’re growing. Start with the simplest ones and work up. Most nursery plant labels have the scientific name on them, usually in smaller print under the common name. Start by looking for that, then do a quick check in Wikipedia to find our more. Soon you’ll be seeing relationships and learning more and more about the things you love growing.