Understanding Scientific Names on Botanical Prints

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Knysna Lily
The Knysna Lily, Cyrtanthus obliquus

Botanical, sea-life and other classic natural history prints were created originally to both educate the public and please the eye.  When you purchase a vintage botanical print, you hold a piece of science history in your hand!

But how to decipher the writing found on these antique prints?

Usually the artist signed the piece on the lower left.  The engraver, who took the original painting and engraved the printing press plate to match it, often signed the lower right side.

Sadly, a third artist, the colorist, who applied the paint to each engraving by hand, did not usually receive credit on the print itself.  Often these colorists were highly talented women.

The center label, or caption, of the painting was traditionally the scientific name of the plant(s) or animal(s) illustrated.  Sometimes the scientific name was given in the common language of the artist, such as French or German, along with the Latin name.

Why scientific names are in Latin

The art of botanical paintings and prints evolved from the Medieval and Renaissance interest in growing and using herbs. They first botanical prints were found in herbaria, or books of herbal remedies written and illustrated by the doctors of the day, the herbalists.

During this time in Europe, the language used by all intellectuals was Latin.

The scientific naming conventions we use today began with the famous plant scientist Linnaeus in the 18th century.

Before that time, scientists writing about a plant or animal were hamstrung with long seven or eight-word long names for a single species. But using Linnaeus’s system, a particular living thing can be accurately identified using only the last two of these: the Genus name and the species name, for example, Homo sapiens.

Not all scientific names are necessarily pure Latin words, but they have been given Latin endings, such as “is” and “ae.”

This two-part name is sometimes called as the “binomen” because bi- means “two” in Latin. The first term is capitalized but the second term is not.  The entire name is usually printed in italics.

How scientists choose names

Many scientific names reveal something special about the plant or animal being named.  For example, the Fritillaria Imperialis, or Crown Imperial Fritillary, was named for its swirling crown of green leaves set above the orange and yellow bell shaped flower, like an Imperial crown on a ruler’s head.

Another example: The Cyrtanthus obliquus is a gorgeous orange-red flower related to the Amaryllis.  The word, “obliquus” stands for “oblique,” meaning “slanted or sloped.”  This species was obviously named for its large, heavy flowers which hang downward from the top of the flower stalk.

The scientist who first discovers a new species gets the honor of naming it, even if they were the first by only a few minutes! Often they may choose to name it after themselves or a loved one.

For example, the originally named Exonautes Gilberti (common name blackwinged flyingfish) was most likely first noted by a scientist with the name of Gilbert. The Genus name Exonautes probably referred to the fact that the fish “exits” the ocean when it flies through the air, like an astronaut. Today, the currently accepted name has been changed to Hirundichthys rondeletii.

Why scientific names change

Interestingly, the currently accepted scientific names of many species of plants and animals have changed over time as botanists and zoologists from different countries and continents compared notes and learned more about each species and how they are related.

For example, a common yellow flowered herb, called coffeeweed, was originally named Cassia occidentalis in an 1816 British publication, The Botanic Register. But the currently accepted name of the plant has been changed to Senna occidentalis.

This herb and coffee substitute grows in tropical areas all over the world, such as Hawaii and Brazil.  Local common names include coffeeweed, coffee senna, Mogdad coffee, senna coffee, Stephanie coffee, and stinkingweed.

With so many common names from so many locations, it’s easy to see why using a single scientific name is important to scientists who work all over the world.

How to find the currently accepted name for a botanical print

Fortunately, even though many scientific names have been changed, it’s easy to look up the original name of your botanical print using online universal plant and animal species listings, such as:

With these and other searchable sites, such as Wikipedia, you will often be able to match the original scientific name of your botanical print with the currently accepted name now used universally by scientists in the field.

Copyright 2011-Holly B. Martin

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