Each plant specimen represents one species that has its own scientific name. The scientific names of plants are based on taxonomy, the science of defining groups of biological organisms. The first part of the name (always written in capital first letter) identifies the genus to which the species belongs, and the second part (written in small letters) identifies the species within the genus.
Related species form a genus. Related genera belong to the same family. The names are usually in Latin language or in classical Greek. When you translate scientific names of plants, it’s often surprising how descriptive they are! For example, the healing properties of sage are revealed by its scientific name Salvia officinalis. Salvia (“salviya”) derives from the Latin salvere (“to feel well and healthy, health, heal”), and officinalis means “medicinal”. If you are interested in the meanings of plants Latin names, here’s a list with translations in English.
Sometimes scientist have to change the plant’s scientific name, if researches have revealed some new results about the plant’s evolutionary relationships with other plants. That’s why there might be several scientific names in use for the same plant species. Some people are used to using an old name, even though there is already a new, official name.
A good example is Pelargonium, a flowering plant commonly known as geranium. But Geranium is the botanical name (and also common name) of a separate genus of related plants often called cranesbills. Both Pelargonium and Geranium were first included in one genus, Geranium, and they were later separated into two genera in the late 1700s. So the old names may stick around for a loooooong time!
Why bother using Latin names instead of English names? Well, the previous pelargonium example gives one reason. The English names are often confusing because there might be several names for the same plant, but also one name for several plants. The only way of making sure that you really get the seeds or plants you want to buy, is to use the official scientific name. This way there won’t be any confusion between the buyer and the seller.
Professional horticulturists and gardeners use scientific names for that reason. Another practical thing with scientific names is that you don’t need to remember that sage is “sauge” in French, “Salbei” in German and “salie” in Dutch, but you can just remember one name: Salvia officinalis, and all the professionals in the gardening trade will understand which plant you are talking about!
When people breed new varieties, the variety name is not in Latin language. For example, leaf mustard ‘Fringed Red’ is known by Brassica juncea ‘Fringed Red’ in its scientific name. The variety names are always written inside simple quote marks in capital first letter.