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How do plants get their name?

Names are important to us! We use them to explain who or what we are talking about. Discover different ways of naming plants!

Scientific and common names

In your class is there anyone named Sam Brown? Sam might be a short name for Samantha or Samuel, or it could just be Sam. In the same way that we have a surname and a first name, plants belong to different large family groups, and have a scientific name of genus and species.
Sam = common name
Brown samantha = scientific name
Our Wild Carrot seems to be missing part of its scientific name.

Wild Carrot = common name
Trachymene sp. = scientific name 

The sp. means ‘species’ and shows us that we don’t have, or don’t know, the full scientific name. Scientific names are shown in italics so you know it’s the special scientific name whereas common names are shown in regular text. Another very interesting fact is that scientific names are usually in botanical Latin. When formal naming of plants started in the 18th century, Latin was the universal language of science.

Plant names are powerful – did you know that the colour orange is called after the fruit? Before the year 1510, the colour of oranges was called red as they hadn’t coined a word for the colour orange!

Can you match these plants to their nicknames?

First Nations plant names

Did you know that most Australian native plants had names a long time before they were given their scientific names? These names came for the First Nations Peoples of the area. In fact, there are about 250 language groups in Australia with the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney sitting on Gadigal land, the Australian Botanic Gardens Mount Annan on Dharawal land and the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens Mount Tomah on Darug land.

Find out more about the Gadigal people.

The image gallery highlights four species where their three names are known.
two red fruits covered in hairs
The shrub is known as 'dog balls' because it generally
develops two red fruits covered in soft hairs.

Plants with funny names

A northern Australian shrub with a distinctive red fruit known as 'dogs balls has finally been given a correct scientific name after almost 500 years.

Click on this link to discover more about the plant with a funny name that received a new scientific name.


Activities - How do plants get their name?

Trachymene in natural habitat
Wild Carrot (Trachymene - pronounced - Track key meanie
Photographer: Dave Hardin

1. Naming the Wild Carrot

Thinking about our little Wild Carrot, what name could you give it? 

Tips to consider

2. Botanical Celebrity Heads

Play a game of Celebrity Heads to practice your naming skills – but give it a botanical twist!

Everyone writes the name of a plant on a card and puts it in a pot. Let your teacher draw a name card and attach it to one of your classmates’ headbands. He or she has to find out now what plant they are by asking clever questions which can only be answered with yes or no…

Am I a tree? Am I big? Am I green?

See who is the quickest in guessing their name!

3. Plant name scavenger!

Want to know how certain plants got their names? Jump online and check the history of the following plant names: 

  • Banksia
  • Golden Wattle
  • Daisy
  • Rose
  • Pineapple

4. Name your class

Have a look around and find one word that describes your class – collect them all on the blackboard. Check what words come up most. Did you choose a funny name?

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