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Botanical Taxonomy and Classification - Basics
Guide to Naming Conventions for Editors and Non-Taxonomy Specialists.

Botanical Taxonomy and Classification is the study and grouping of similar plants into categories. At a high level, similar plants are grouped into families (e.g. Amaryillidaceae, Liliaceae, etc). Families are divided into genus, and genus divided into species. A species is a kind of plant that freely interbreeds within its native geographic range to produce identical and true offspring. Scientific names typically display a genus name followed by a species epithet. Both words are italicized, the first letter of the genus is capitalized.

    Examples:
  • Crocus chrysanthus
  • Trillium grandiflorum


Locally distinguishable plant populations, hybrids, horticultural plants, and genetic strains are further divided by additional names. These names follow genus and species. Some names are written in Roman type and are contained within single quotes. Other names are italicized and proceeded by a taxonomic term such as subspecies, variety, or forma.

    Examples:
  • Crocus chrysanthus 'Zwanenburg Bronze'
  • Maianthemum racemosum subspecies racemosum
  • Hepatica nobilis variety acuta
  • Trillium grandiflorum forma polymerum


Common name follows genus and species, and is contained within parenthesis (formal). Alternatively, common name can follow a comma (less formal).

    Examples:
  • Trillium grandiflorum (Great White Trillium)
  • Trillium grandiflorum, Great White Trillium

Botanical Taxonomy and Classification - Finer Points
Form usually refers to an uncharacteristic flower color or unusual growth habit. They are typically associated with environmental causes and the trait does not reliably pass to seed. Occasionally genetic strains produce stable polyploid populations. Genus and species are italicized, the first letter of the genus is capitalized. The word "forma" follows and is printed in Roman type, then the form name in italics (formal botanical). Alternatively, the word "form" can replace the word "forma" (less formal).

    Examples:
  • Trillium grandiflorum forma polymerum
  • Trillium grandiflorum form polymerum

Synonymous forms are written with the word "forma" or "form" printed in Roman type, then the outdated horticultural form in italics, and followed by the word synonym in parentheses. In plant taxonomy, synonym means an identical plant, but represented with an outdated name.

    Examples:
  • Trillium grandiflorum forma polymerum
  • Trillium grandiflorum forma floro plenum (synonym)


A subdivision of a species is designated as a subspecies (distinctive difference between two geographically isolated populations) and variety (distinctive morphologic difference, but populations geographically overlap). Subspecies and varieties are associated with an inherited trait. Genus and species are italicized, the first letter of the genus is capitalized. The word "subspecies" or "variety" follows and is printed in Roman type, then the second epithet in italics. Alternatively, abbreviations "subsp.", "ssp.", or "var." are used.

    Examples:
  • Hepatica nobilis variety acuta (Sharplobe Hepatica)
  • Hepatica nobilis var. acuta (Sharplobe Hepatica)
  • Maianthemum racemosum subspecies racemosum (False Solomon's-seal)
  • Maianthemum racemosum subsp. racemosum (False Solomon's-seal)
  • Maianthemum racemosum ssp. racemosum (False Solomon's-seal)


Cultivated varieties, also termed "cultivars", are man-made propagations of naturally occurring species. Genus and species are italicized, the first letter of the genus is capitalized. The cultivar name is printed in Roman type with the first letter of the cultivar capitalized. The abbreviation "cv." can precede the cultivar name (seldom used).

    Examples:
  • Polygonatum inflatum 'Cheju Giant'
  • Polygonatum inflatum cv. Cheju Giant

Note: We consider all cultivars to be clonal unless we know them to be grex (terms defined below). That is, we consider all individuals in a cultivar to be identical down to their exactly replicated genetic material. We denote this by placing single quote marks around the cultivar name.


Grex is a latin word meaning flock, herd, company, troop, or group. It is commonly associated with orchids, but grex is a very useful concept that can be applied to other plant families. Grexes are man-made crosses between two species, between one species and one hybrid, or between two hybrids. All reoccurring crosses made, even using different parents, are recognized as the same grex. A grex cross will result in siblings with non-identical genetic material. A result of sexual reproduction. Clones are identical in genetic material reproduced through meristem culture or division. A result of asexual reproduction.

Genus and species are italicized, the first letter of the genus is capitalized. Traditionally in horticulture, genus alone followed by grex name is written. The grex name is printed in Roman type with the first letter of the cultivar capitalized. The clonal name follows, printed in Roman type, with the first letter of each word capitalized and contained within single quote marks.

    Examples:
  • Paphiopedilum Pinocchio
  • Paphiopedilum Venus Hold 'Setic Mile'

Alternatively, the entire cross of the grex can be written out. Complex grex crosses are contained within one or more sets of parentheses.

    Examples:
  • Paphiopedilum Pinocchio
  • (Paphiopedilum primulinum x Paphiopedilum glaucophyllum) Pinocchio
  • Paphiopedilum Venus Hold 'Setic Mile'
  • (Paphiopedilum venustum x Paphiopedilum Holdenii) Venus Hold 'Setic Mile'


After a genus has been once written, it is acceptable to use an abbreviation. However, it is always allowable to spell out the entire genus where confusion may occur. An abbreviated genus remains in italics. Species are never abbreviated. Botanists abbreviate genus by reusing the first letter. Horticulturalists abbreviate genus by reusing one or more letters. Alternatively after the first occurrence, the writing of the genus can be entirely dropped and only species is used (if carefully applied).

    Examples:
  • (Paphiopedilum primulinum x Paphiopedilum glaucophyllum) Pinocchio
  • (Paphiopedilum primulinum x P. glaucophyllum) Pinocchio
  • (Paphiopedilum primulinum x glaucophyllum) Pinocchio

Use one or more sets of parentheses to avoid confusion.

    Examples:
  • (Paphiopedilum venustum x Paphiopedilum Holdenii) Venus Hold 'Setic Mile'
  • (Paphiopedilum venustum x P. Holdenii) Venus Hold 'Setic Mile'
  • (Paphiopedilum venustum x Holdenii) Venus Hold 'Setic Mile'
  • (Paphiopedilum venustum x ( (lawrenceanum x callosum) x callosum) ) Venus Hold 'Setic Mile'

We enjoy flowers regardless of their origin. Some flower gardens feature native species, others host exotic plants and horticultural varieties. Still others are a blend. We find beauty in all flower gardens. Enjoy our photographs of individual plants and groups. Note the names, if you wish, we have taken great effort to properly identify each plant as specifically as possible. But don't let the scientific names scare you. With or without a name, the flowers remain just as pretty.

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