The Science of Botanical Art


By Dick Rauh 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 16, Issue 3


We have talked about this before, but the problems keep coming up, and naming a plant correctly is one of those things that we are expected to do as often as we paint them. Calligraphy is an art form with almost equal demands as the requirements of producing a beautiful rendering and there seem to be fewer and fewer of us that have taken the time to master this discipline. I have seen more than one exquisitely produced painting that has been ruined by the addition of a signature or identification that wasn’t up to the level of the artwork. 

Just leaving out that side of botanical painting is an option, but it doesn’t get you off the hook in terms of providing a proper name for your flower. Somewhere along the line someone is going to insist on a name. That usually goes along the line of, “Please enter the Latin binomial and common name of your flower,” and this is what finds its way into the catalog, price list, or whatever. So flowers come with a certain amount of baggage, some supplied by horticulturists, some by scientists and some by just folks. 

A common name (a good number of rare plants do not have common names at all) is what the flower is named in the jargon, and this varies by locality and language and other factors so that the same flower can have a number of monikers, depending on where you are. Wildflowers are especially vulnerable to this treatment. For example adder’s tongue and trout lily are one and the same flower! 

To solve this problem scientists have come up with the Latin binomial. This is a set name for each species, and is the same no matter where in the world you find the flower. This nomenclature had its beginnings with the 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus, who built on a system that you could identify each species with two names. 

The first name is a grouping of similar plants known as a genus. When this is written it is in italics or underlined, and it is written with an initial capital, and all the rest of the name in lower case. Rosa or Rosa are accepted examples. The second name, or species (or more correctly the “specific epithet”), pinpoints the single plant that you are concerned with, and this is written in all lower case letters and is in italics or underlined as is the genus name. 

My understanding of the latest ruling is that the specific epithet is always in all lower case letters, even if the plant is named for a person or particular place. Incidentally before I get on too far, I am not necessarily talking through my hat. There really is an International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, which is regulated by the Nomenclature Section of the International Botanical Congress, and there is also an International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. So you can see how seriously both the scientific and horticultural communities take this. 

A lot of naming gets pretty abstruse and picky, but I hope I can make it a bit more manageable and easier to apply. For one thing there are classifications below the species, and there are natural and cultivated hybrids to deal with. 

So, if you know what your flower is, you have your Latin binomial, and that’s that; Cattleya aurantica perhaps or Magnolia stellata. There don’t seem to be any rules for where or how to write the common name (nv.). Just suppose you are able to identify your plant to genus, but are not sure of the species. Here it is perfectly acceptable to use the abbreviation sp. So that Malva sp. would work fine, much better than misidentifying to species. The abbreviation spp. translates into species, that is to say, more than one species. This can be used broadly, for example to describe the number of species in flowering plants, some 250,000 spp. It could also apply to a painting in which there was more than one species of the same genus depicted, and you weren’t sure of the exact specific epithet. It could be Solanum spp. 

But these are oddball cases and what you are more likely to run into is a variety or a subspecies of a known flower.  

If a variety is defined as a usually geographically isolated variation to the typical version of a species, with characteristics that are different enough to have the designation as a variety (written var.) but not different enough to be considered a new species. Whether something is listed as a variety or a subspecies (written subsp. or ssp.) seems to be at the discretion of the botanist naming it. Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis is an example of a variety listing. Brassica rapa subs. campestris is a subspecies listing and it could be written Brassica rapa ssp. campestris. Note that both the variety and subspecies abbreviations are not italicized (or underlined if that is the technique you are using). 

Now we get to cultivars, cv. (for cultivated variety) and now humans have a hand in. This is where the horticulturalist is involved, and these are the productions of human involvement generally for horticultural purposes. For example there is a cultivated variety of Norway maple known to the trade as ‘Crimson King’. We have a choice in naming this; the Latin binomial and the cultivar name, either Acer platanoides ‘Crimson King’ (note the single quotes, the regular type and the upper and lower case) or Acer platanoides cv. Crimson King, with the cv. and no quotes. 

In roses, for example, the hybridization has been going on for so long and its origins have for the most part been lost in time, that is has become perfectly valid to use the genus name with the cultivar name and be correct. Rosa ‘Queen Elizabeth’ for example. This is true of any number of cultivated plants, and makes our lives much simpler. 

Hybrids are another story, and they can occur naturally or with human’s assistance. This is where the times sign (and you thought it was an ‘x’ all this time, just like me) shows up. If it is a cross between two species of the same genus then the sign appears in front of the specific epithet, theoretically without a space. The common strawberry is just such a hybrid, and it is written Fragaria x ananassa. That x should really be a times sign- but who has an easily typed times sign on his keyboard - and it will have to do. To be literally correct there should be no space between the sign and the species, but when using an x it would be very confusing. 

There are cases where it is the genera that are hybridized and in that case there is a twofold solution. The times sign precedes the hybrid genus name, which is an amalgam of the two genera involved, so there is actually something named xFatshedera lizei which is a cross between Hedera helix and Fatsia japonica

Which sort of leads into the very special set of rules that governs the naming of orchid cultivars - those are in the thousands! 

Whereas wild orchids follow the rules for all natural plants with a Latin binomial, the majority of cultivated orchids is artificial hybrids and is given three names. One is a generic name. It is in Latin and italicized, and can be a normal orchid genus, or, as so often happens, a hybrid of genera depending on what went into the mix, sometimes more than two as in Sophrolaelio cattleya. 

The second name is a grex (meaning ‘group’ or ‘flock’ in Latin) epithet. It is in modern language and can be up to three words, and it is never italicized. This with the generic name is the term applied to all the progeny directly raised from two parent plants with the same pair of specific names (this is a direct quote from The Naming of Cultivated Orchids so don’t ask me). 

The third is the cultivar epithet, and is used to identify a particular clone, again not in Latin, not italicized, but enclosed in a single set of quotes, like a named cv. A typical cultivated orchid name might be Brasolaelio cattleya George King ‘Serendipity’. So put that in your pipe and smoke it! 

What I haven’t touched on in this article is the appearance in most botanical texts of the author, or authority. This is the name usually in abbreviated form of the scientist who has the honor of naming the plant in the first place. and comes after the Latin binomial. There are a whole set of rules governing this, but since we are allowed to leave out this bit of information when we name our paintings, I’m not going to bother you about this now.

  • Mortonia utahensis, watercolor, © Susan Ashton 2009 from Grand Canyon’s Green Heart exhibit.