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The naming of plants

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Introduction

The accurate and unambiguous naming of plants, both wild and cultivated, is a matter of interest to every gardener: how else can you be sure of what you are buying?

Naming of plants takes place at two distinct levels. Common or vernacular names are completely unregulated, and this can lead to great confusion and duplication. A good example the bulbous plant known in England as the bluebell. In Scotland, its name is wild hyacinth and, to a Scot, 'bluebell' means a completely unrelated plant! In the rest of Europe, of course, it has a number of other local common names. In contrast, the same plant has but one current scientific or botanical name: Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Many plants do not have any vernacular name in general use. Such considerations prompted the development of the present system of scientific nomenclature.

The application of scientific names to plants is governed by a single set of rules, accepted and followed throughout the world, and periodically revised and updated. This is the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN). The current edition incorporates amendments agreed at the Saint Louis Botanical Congress in 1999, and an online version of the previous Tokyo Code is now available.

More recently, as it became apparent that there were difficulties with cultivated plants' names, a corresponding Code was agreed for them. This is the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, and it governs the naming of cultivars and cultivar-groups. Like the botanical code, this is periodically revised and the current edition dates from 1995; it is not at present available online. An innovation introduced with this latest edition is the Standard Specimen - a type of voucher specimen, stored in an appropriate herbarium for posterity, to help identify a new cultivar.

To be legitimate, all plant names must conform to these two codes. Nurserymen, gardeners and plant breeders who are contemplating naming or introducing new plants may obtain advice from the RHS.

The Advisory Panel on Nomenclature & Taxonomy (APONAT)

Work on the annual updates to the RHS Plant Finder led to the formation of APONAT, which strives towards a standardized nomenclature for cultivated plants.

The Horticultural Taxonomy Group (HORTAX)

Set up in 1989, HORTAX provides a forum for the discussion and resolution of a wide range of questions relating to the taxonomy and nomenclature of cultivated plants.

In 1998, HORTAX organized the Third International Symposium on the Taxonomy of Cultivated Plants, the Proceedings of which have recently been published.

Common (vernacular) names

A database of English common names, based on the work of Charles Brooker which was given to the Society in the 1970s, is now available on the RHS Horticultural Database.

Further reading

Greuter, W et al. (eds.) (2000) The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (Saint Louis Code). Köeltz, Konigstein, Germany.

Trehane, P (ed.) (1995) International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants - 1995. Quarterjack Publishing, Wimborne, UK.

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How to cite us

If you find the database useful for your work, please mention it when citing sources of information. It may be cited as…

‘The Royal Horticultural Society Horticultural Database’, available at www.rhs.org.uk