What I Learned from Scientific Names

At the beginning of the summer, I set a simple goal: Learn the scientific name of one plant every day. I knew the basics of scientific names from high school biology. Every living species has a Latin-based name, categorizing them first into domains and kingdoms (animal, plant, fungus, etc.), all the way down to their specific genus and species (Solanum lycopersicum, or tomatoes). And I found a handy “botanary” to make the tongue-twister Latin names less intimidating.

I took on this project for two reasons. First, I wanted to sound more educated when I talk about plants. Secondly, I hoped that by taking a scientific approach to studying plants and learning their taxonomy, I’d gain a better understanding of how different species related–an important aspect when practicing permaculture.

On my phone, I set up a simple spreadsheet with Google Sheets where I could record the 1) genus, 2) species, 3) common name, and 4) any notes I wanted to remember about the plant. I started with my favorite flowers and garden plants. A quick visit to Wikipedia gave me the scientific name and plenty of fun facts. Did you know that bell peppers, cayenne pepper, paprika, and jalapenos are all the same species, Capsicum annuum? On the other hand, you’ll find around 50 different species of crab apple in the Malus genus. And peppermint, or Mentha x piperita, is actually a hybrid of watermint and spearmint.

I also used a guide book for common weeds from USU Extension. As I learned the names of various weeds, I started see them everywhere. I noticed where certain weeds grew and when each species came into bloom. I saw so much biodiversity that I had never noticed before.

And the results from my summer-long experiment? I learned the scientific names of just over 80 plant species. I don’t have most of the names memorized, but I do recognize the names when I see them. I’m already seeing benefits from my project. For example, on a Facebook gardener’s page someone mentioned that Solanum nigrum was invading their squash. Since I’d learned the scientific name for plants in the Solanum genus, I knew that this weed shares characteristics with deadly nightshades (likely poisonous on some level) and as well as to tomatoes, potatoes, and egg plant. If this Solanum “weed” tends to invade a garden full of squash, maybe the Solanum “edibles” will make good companion plants for squash. Time to look into a potato/tomato/eggplant + squash guild.

I’ll call that a success. If you have any experience with learning scientific names, with Solanum+squash companion planting, or anything else exciting, let me know in the comments! 🙂