Did this week’s papal hootenanny — Habemus Papam! — in Rome leave you yearning to brush up on your Latin? Well, look no further than your own backyard (or local garden center or botanical garden).

While even the most sage green thumbs may be well-versed in the common names of plants, deciphering a plant’s Latin botanical name, or scientific name, is obviously a whole new — and frequently confounding — horticultural ball game.

This is where Sunset — the venerable periodical dedicated to gardening, home design, dining, travel, and other lifestyle concerns of the Pacific and Mountain time zones — comes in.

In the just-released interactive ebook/app version of “The New Western Garden Book: The Ultimate Gardening Guide” (Oxmoor House), the editors of Sunset dedicate an entire chapter to the art of deciphering botanical names. It’s truly fascinating and important stuff, and once you get the hang of it, it all kind of makes sense. Plus, learning to identify and refer to a plant by its proper botanical name is no doubt a great — albeit a touch obnoxious — party trick to try out the next time you host a garden get-together:

Wow! Your azaleas are looking great this year!

You mean my Rhododendron japoncium? Why thank you very much!

Below, you’ll find the excerpted chapter on botanical names, “Demystifying Plant Names,” from the ninth edition of the book, a tome that for decades now has served as a bible for gardeners both beginning and seasoned from Alaska to Wyoming and everywhere in between.

And for much more, including regional gardening calendars, a rundown of bird- and beneficial insect-attracting blooms, a comprehensive start-to-finish gardening guide, and a new "Plant Finder" section, “The New Western Garden Book” is now available for purchase at Inkling.com where you can receive a special 20 percent discount off the purchase price of $19.99 (use code SUNSET20 at checkout). Individual sections can also be purchased separately. Additionally, you can take a peek at the book's introduction, "Tomorrow's Garden," here.

Filled with videos, slideshows, eye-popping flora photography, and numerous features and content not found in the print version, the book is compatible with iPhone, iPad, and Internet-connected PCs. In addition to Inkling.com, it's also available for purchase via the Apple Store.

Now, Confestim, the demystification of botanical names:

* * * 

Demystifying Plant Names

Scientific (botanical) plant names can be intimidating to gardeners. So why have they been used around the world for hundreds of years? Why do we use them in this book? And why do the plants sold at nurseries so often have botanical names printed on their labels?

There’s good reason: Common names for plants can be confusing or misleading. The same common name can refer to different plants in different parts of the country or the world. It can be used for two or more plants that not only look different but vary tremendously in growth habit, needs, and bloom season.

A Precise Language

Botanical names are more precise than common ones. If you inquire at a nursery about a dusty miller, for example, you might be asked: “Which one?” A number of very different plants are known by that name. All are perennials with silvery foliage, but Centaurea cineraria has big, yellow thistlelike flowers; Senecio cineraria has small yellow flowers; Senecio viravira has creamy white flowers; and Lychnis coronaria has magenta to crimson flowers. Likewise, “black-eyed Susan” applies to two very different plants (see below).

Similar-sounding common names may also cause confusion. “Hummingbird bush” is the Australian shrub Grevillea thelemanniana. “Hummingbird flower” on the other hand is the California native perennial Zauschneria; “hummingbird mint” is another perennial, Agastache.

Finally, ornamentals and weeds may bear the same common name. “Spanish broom” is either a tidy, 2-foot shrub with yellow flowers (Genista hispanica) or a rangy, 6- to 10-foot shrub (Spartium junceum) that runs wild across many parts of the West.

Two plants, both black-eyed Susans. But Rudbeckia hirta is a perennial (named for scientist Olaus Rudbeck; hirta means “rough, hairy” as in stems, leaves). Thunbergia alata is a twining vine grown as an annual (named for botanist Carl Peter Thunberg; alatus means “winged,” as in “winged seeds”).

What’s in a Name?

Botanical names, if you break them down, can tell you something about the plants. The first word in a botanical name is the genus name. The second word is the species name, which is usually a descriptive word.

Many plants are named for the person who found or first described them. Iris douglasiana, for example, was named for Scottish horticulturist David Douglas, who collected plants in California in 1831.

Other names hold clues about a plant’s physical characteristics. Sollya heterophylla, for example, combines hetero (heterogeneous or various) with phylla (leaves) to mean “various-size leaves.” Indeed, some of the leaves of this evergreen shrub are lanceolate and others are oblong.

Some of the botanical names are so much like English words that there is no question as to their meaning. Prostratum, compacta, deliciosa, fragrans, and pendula all give clear clues about a plant’s qualities.

Botanical names may also be inspired by where plants come from, by their texture or overall shape, or by the color of their flowers or leaves.

Listed below are some descriptive parts of botanical names used in this book. Familiarize yourself with them and you’ll know a lot about many plants as soon as you hear their name.

Plant Colors

albus—white                                          

argenteus—silvery

aureus—golden                                      

azureus—azure, sky blue

caeruleus—dark blue                              

caesius—blue-gray

candidus—pure white, shiny                  

canus—ashy gray, hoary

cereus—waxy                                        

citrinus—yellow

coccineus—scarlet                                  

concolor—one color

croceus—yellow                                    

cruentus—bloody

discolor—two colors, separate colors        

glaucus—covered with gray bloom (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’ pictured at left)

incanus—gray, hoary                              

luteus—yellow

pallidus—pale                                      

purpureus—purple

rubens, ruber—red, ruddy                      

rufus—ruddy

Plant Parts

dendron—tree

flora, florum, flori, florus—flowers

phyllus, phylla—leaf or leaves

Form of Leaf (folius — leaves or foliage)

cerifolius—maple-like

angustifolius—narrow

aquifolius—spiny

buxifolius—boxwood-like

ilicifolius—holly-like

laurifolius—laurel-like

parvifolius—small

populifolius—poplar-like pictured at left

quercifolius—oak-like

salicifolius—willow-like (Helianthus salicifolius pictured at left)

Shape of Plant

adpressus—pressing against, hugging

altus—tall

arboreus—treelike

capitatus—headlike

compactus—compact, dense

confertus—crowded, pressed together

contortus—twisted  

decumbens—trailing, with tips upright        

depressus—pressed down

elegans—elegant, slender (Salvia elegans pictured at left)

fastigiatus—branches erect and close together

humifusus—ground-sprawling

humilis—low, small, humble

impressus—sunken

nanus—dwarf

pendula—hanging

procumbens—trailing

prostratus—prostrate

pumilus—dwarf, small

pusillus—puny, insignificant

repens—creeping

reptans—creeping

scandens—climbing

Plant Peculiarities

armatus—armed

augusta—majestic, notable

baccatus—berried, berrylike

barbatus—barbed or bearded

campanulatus—bell- or cup-shaped

ciliaris—fringe

cordatus—heart-shaped

cornutus—horned

crassus—thick, fleshy

decurrens—running down the stem

diversi—varying

edulis—edible

floridus—free-flowering

fruticosus—shrubby

fulgens—shiny

gracilis—slender, thin, graceful

grandis—large, showy (Banksia grandis pictured above)

ifer, iferus—bearing or having; e.g.,stoloniferus, having stolons

imperialis—showy

laciniatus—fringed or with torn edges   

laevigatus—smooth

lobatus—lobed

longus—long

macro—large

maculatus—spotted

micro—small

mollis—soft, soft-haired

mucronatus—pointed

nutans—nodding, swaying

obtusus—blunt or flattened

officinalis—medicinal

oides—like or resembling; e.g., jasminoides, like a jasmine

patens—open, spreading growth

pinnatus—like a feather

platy—broad

plenus—double, full

plumosus—feathery

praecox—early

pungens—piercing

radicans—rooting, especially along the stem

reticulatus—net-veined

retusus—notched at blunt apex

rugosus—wrinkled, rough

saccharatus—sweet, sugary

sagittalis—arrowlike

scabrus—rough feeling

scoparius—broomlike

Where From

The suffix -ensis, -us, or -is (of a place) is added to place names to specify the habitat where the plant was first discovered.

africanus—of Africa

alpinus—of the Alps

australis—southern

borealis—northern

campestris—of field or plains

canadensis—of Canada (Cornus canadensis pictured at left)

canariensis—of the Canary Islands

capensis—of the Cape of Good Hope area

chilensis—of Chile

chinensis—of China

hispanicus—of Spain

hortensis—of gardens

indicus—of India

insularis—of the island

japonicus—of Japan

littoralis—of the seashore

montanus—of the mountains

riparius—of riverbanks

rivalis, rivularis—of brooks

saxatilis—inhabiting rocks

Text and images above from "The New Western Garden Book: The Ultimate Gardening Guide" courtesy of Oxmoor House and Inkling Systems, Inc. 

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