Northern Ontario Plant Database
Why Use Scientific Names?
Scientific names provide a standard name for each plant and animal taxon, which can be understood by scientists around the world. In the past, Latin and Greek were the languages used universally by learned people, therefore, names written in these languages could be recognized by scientists regardless of nationality or spoken language. Most scientific names are of Latin origin, but occasionally a Greek work is used as the root of a species name.
For example, the scientific name for red maple is Acer rubrum. Each scientific name is composed of two parts: a genus (Acer in our example), the first letter of which is always capitalized, and a specific epithet (rubrum in our example), which is always written in lower case. Together, the genus and specific epithet make up the species name (Acer rubrum). The specific epithet defines the exact type of plant in question. In our example, the specific epithet "rubrum" answers "red maple" to the question "Which maple"? When included in printed text, scientific names are italicized; when hand written, scientific names should be underlined.
The specific epithet is used as an adjective and often describes some physical aspect of the plant. In the case of Acer rubrum, the epithet "rubrum" refers to the red colour of its leaves and flowers in various seasons. Epithets such as "arvense," "sylvestris," or "aquatica" refer to plants typically found in fields, woods, or aquatic habitats. In the past, if a specific epithet was named after a proper place or a person, the first letter of the epithet was capitalized, but his practice is no longer followed. A specific epithet has no taxonomic status of its own. To be recognized, it must be written with the genus name. In scientific publications, the first time a species name is written, both the genus and specific epithet are spelled out completely. If the name appears again in the same text, it is permissible to abbreviate the genus name to the first letter followed by a period, as in A. rubrum.
Scientific names are also called binomials since they are composed of two words. Before the Swedish Naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, established the binomial system of naming organisms, plants and animals were identified by long descriptive sentences. With the publication of Linnaeus's Species Plantarum in 1753, the Binomial System of Nomenclature came into existence. Starting with this book, Linnaeus assigned binomial species names, composed of a genus and a specific epithet, to many plants. Names created before the publication of Linnaeus's 1753 work are not considered valid.
For more information on scientific names and their meanings, check out the following websites: