Why I Use Scientific Names

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you may have noticed that I typically specify the scientific name of the plants I write about. While this practice may distract some readers, I do this for a very good reason.

Cichorium intybus, known commonly as Chicory, Blue Sailors, or Coffeeweed

Many plants -- like Cichorium intybus in the photo above -- have multiple common names, often differing in usage by region or personal preference.  For another example, take Black Birch.  This tree is known by many other names, such as Cherry Birch, Sweet Birch and Spice Birch.  How is one to know that all of these names refer to the same tree?  By using the tree's unique scientific name Betula lenta, we can minimize confusion. This can be especially helpful when the same common name is shared by more than one species.

Scientific names come in two parts: the genus name (ex. Betula) and the specific name (ex. lenta).  Plants with the same genus name can be thought of as close relatives, much like related humans having the same last name.  It is customary to italicize both names and capitalize only the genus.  This naming system is also called "binomial nomenclature".

If I'm not sure which birch I'm talking about (or if I don't think specifics are needed), I may simply write Betula sp. -- meaning "a species of Birch".  If I want to refer to several birch species, I may write Betula spp. -- meaning "several members of the Betula genus".

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