Importance of Scientific Names in Botany

(Updated: August 19, 2021)

Have you ever read a good book about plants? Chances are that book had the scientific name (also known as a binomial) listed next to the common name of each plant. For example, Thymus vulgaris listed next to the common name of thyme. It may have even included thyme’s botanical family (Lamiaceae). Many of these long and hard to pronounce words are foreign and seem like a burden to learn. I assure you, they are there for a good reason.

Plant IDs

The identification of plants is crucial when working with herbal medicine. Whether you are foraging, wildcrafting, or even growing something from the nursery (there are a large amount of mislabeled plants for various reasons) you need to know what you have. Plants that are intended for ingestion or medicinal use must be properly identified! 

Does it seem like I’m a little repetitive? I cannot overstate how identification can quite literally mean the difference in life and death. Many edible plants have deadly look-alikes, such as Wild Carrot/Queen Anne’s Lace versus Poison Hemlock (pictured below). Many medicinal herbs also have different properties for different species. Therefore, one is not equivalent to another.

Picture of two white carrot-shaped roots attached at the top lying on rocks in riverbank soil.
These are poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) roots we identified on one of our foraging walks along the River Dart during our 2020 Winter stay in England, which can be easily mistaken for other plants in the carrot family. Exact plant identification matters!

Why scientific names instead of common names?

Common names are plentiful and change by location, culture, person, and even language. Comparatively, each plant has only ONE scientific name. Sometimes scientists do rename a specific plant, but more on that in a bit.

Here’s a great example: I make a plantain salve. Without using the scientific name, your mind probably jumped to the banana-like fruit. But that is not the herb I use. The herb Plantago (pictured below) is the plantain I use. It is an edible and highly medicinal plant that most people only see as a weed.

Picture of small groups of wild plantain (Plantago spp.) healthily producing seed heads and thriving, while growing through a bed of gravel.
Patches of wild growing plantain (Plantago spp.) that resiliently popped-up through the gravel driveway on our previous homestead.

By the way, banana “trees” are actually classified as giant herbs because their trunks have no wood in them. They are simply modified leaf stems that press against one another. The banana-like fruit called plantain belongs to the genus Musa in the banana family. Even here there is confusion. In many countries, other than the U.S., there is no distinction between dessert bananas (how we categorize sweet bananas) and cooking bananas (starchy types which we call plantains). We also run into this when discussing sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) and yams (Dioscorea spp.). These are two botanically distinct plants in two different families. (In the U.S. these names refer only to dry or moist types of sweet potatoes.)

Close-up picture of an open sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) flower growing from a vine hidden within a patch of wild grasses.
One of our sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) flowers growing from a vine that had escaped its raised bed to spread out amongst the grass.

The Ongoing Change in Scientific Names

To avoid confusion when I talk or write about plants, I use scientific names to clarify the plant I mean. Sometimes though, I have two scientific names listed. Why list the two names if there is only one official name? I do this because it helps when you are researching the plant in older literature. 

Every ten years or so, an international team of scientists get together and evaluate the taxonomy of plants. They each weigh-in what they have learned recently to help clarify which family a specific plant belongs to. By including new genomic data, instead of just operating on identification via flowering and fruiting structures, some plants are discovered to belong to a different family than was originally thought. This change in information thus leads to the plant having two scientific names. Technically, both names are correct for their own time of publication.

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2 Replies to “Importance of Scientific Names in Botany”

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