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22 Nov 2023

The PLANTS project: why do plant names matter?

Written by Fran Culverhouse, PLANTS West Inventory Officer
A composite image featuring three different plants in a row. On the left is a coppery leaved rhododendron; in the middle is a close-up of a white magnolia flower; and on the right is a branch of a tree, with white floppy leaves hanging down.
The PLANTS project team are passionate about plant names. Read on to hear from West Inventory Officer Fran Culverhouse on why a grasp of basic plant name etymology can come in pretty handy for us all.

Have you come across botanical names? Chances are that you have, even if you weren’t thinking about it at the time. Whether you’ve planted a fuchsia, hydrangea or hosta, you’ve had an encounter with the world of plant names.

In the PLANTS Project team, we spend much of our time working with plant names. Our summers are spent out in the gardens identifying each plant to find its correct name; in the winter, we enter all the plant names we have recorded into our database.

Within our 39 major gardens are many precious plants, and there are several reasons why we are recording them: the collections contain old and important cultivars that form part of our gardening heritage, which have the potential to become lost to horticulture; we grow some species that are rare in cultivation in the UK, especially in our gardens with a unique microclimate; and many of our gardens hold collections of wild origin plants, meaning we know their provenance and they are significant for plant conservation purposes.

By gathering all our plant data together in one place, we are helping to build an excellent resource to help manage our plant collections for the future. And to achieve this, we need to record the names of all our plants.

The rules of botanical nomenclature ensure each plant has one accepted scientific name. It is a universal language and avoids confusion. Each plant has a genus name and specific epithet (or species name), based on the binomial naming system developed by Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus in the 1750s. For example, the plant we know as holly has the scientific name Ilex (genus) aquifolium (species). For cultivated varieties, a plant will have a cultivar name too in single quotation marks, eg Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox Argentea’ (silver hedgehog holly).

A close-up of a leaf of a silver hedgehog holly plant. It has a normal holly shape but the tips of the spikes are creamy white. Droplets of water stand on the waxy leaf surface too.
Silver hedgehog holly

Every plant belongs to a family of one or more genera, which are closely related. Some families are tiny, such as Ginkgoaceae which has only one member: the Ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree). Others are huge, such as the daisy family (Asteraceae) which currently contains 1,702 genera. The work to determine these relationships was once purely based on morphological characteristics but is now largely done with DNA.

Our database holds these accepted names and is updated regularly as plant names change – it is important to work with the most up-to-date names. Changes are made to plant names as our understanding of their evolutionary relationships develop. While it can take effort to re-learn names, it is exciting to better understand how plants are related and where they sit within the plant kingdom. Examples of recent changes include the old genus Mahonia now included in Berberis, and members of the genus Sorbus (including rowan trees) have been split into several new genera.

Botanical plant names can seem daunting to begin with, as their roots are often based on Latin or Greek words, but they are fascinating and can help inform us about the plant. We’ve picked a small selection of plants that the West team have encountered on the PLANTS project so far and will take a look at what their name tells us.

Phytogeography (the study of plant distribution)

The botanical name of this rhododendron at Crarae Garden tells us where the plant is from: Rhododendron yakushimanum comes from the Japanese island of Yakushima.


The genus name of this Limnanthes douglasii plant, found growing at Threave Garden, tells us where it grows naturally: in Greek, limn means pool, pond or marsh, and anthes means flower. It grows by ponds and damp ground in North America.

The common name for this species is the poached egg plant, after the distinctive pattern on the flowers.


The botanical name of the low-growing Fuchsia procumbens at Arduaine Garden tells us how the plant likes to grow: procumbens means prostrate or lying flat in Latin.

Plant characteristics

The Hydrangea quercifolia at Geilston Garden tells us that it has oak-like leaves, since quercus means oak and folia leaves in Latin.

At Culzean, the name of the Davidia involucrata tree gives us another clue to its appearance – the Latin species name of involucrata means surrounded by bracts (modified leaves beneath the flowers). This plant’s common names of dove tree or handkerchief tree also refer to its striking white bracts.

Vernacular names sometimes form part of the scientific name, eg the Gevuina avellana (Chilean hazel) at Arduaine. Gevuina is derived from the word for hazel in Chile, as this tree bears a fruit similar to a hazelnut (although not in the same family).

The hazel we are more familiar with in the UK is Corylus avellana, as seen at Holmwood. Here, the genus name Corylus comes from the Greek word for hood or helmet and refers to the calyx (the collective term for sepals) which grows around the developing nut to protect it.


The Magnolia wilsonii at Greenbank Garden was collected by Ernest Henry Wilson, a celebrated plant collector who introduced into cultivation many plants that we enjoy in our gardens today.

Common names

While we mostly deal with scientific names, the common names of plants can also be significant. They form part of our cultural heritage, are passed down the generations and are usually the names most familiar to us for our native plants. Few of us will recognise Galium aparine, but almost all of us will have heard its common names of cleavers, goosegrass and sticky willy. A single plant species may have many common names, which can even vary by region.

Common names can also be useful descriptively. I find learning them often helps with remembering certain features to help me identify the plant, for example the mouse plant (Arisarum proboscideum) at Threave and the turtle head (Chelone)at Geilston.

We estimate there are around 100,000 plants in our collections. Our work identifying them can vary between straightforward for some species to very challenging for others. When we need help with an identification, our first port of call is always the head gardener and their team. They know the garden and its plants better than anyone, working with the plant collections through all the seasons. Our gardens teams are an invaluable and much-appreciated resource for the PLANTS project.

If, after some detective work, we are still unable to decide on a plant’s name, we will pass it on to specialists. This has been especially helpful with our vast Rhododendron collections at Arduaine and Crarae.

Plant Listing at the National Trust for Scotland (PLANTS) is the biggest horticultural audit project undertaken by the Trust and aims to celebrate, protect and better understand the flora and vegetation across our gardens and designed landscapes.

Read more about the PLANTS project