Seed Saving Time: What’s in a Name?

The heart of every fruit is its seed.by Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

If you garden, I’ll bet you’ve talked to your plants before.  Don’t worry, I do it, too. It’s perfectly normal. Common even. People talk to all kinds of animate and sometimes inanimate things – they also give them names.  Take trees and fast cars, for example.  It doesn’t matter if anyone knows you talk to your plants or not, we’ll keep that our little secret.  But if you are a gardener trying to save pure seed, you’ll want to take those pet names and give them some botanical teeth!

Every Plant Has a Name

Knowing the botanical names of the plants in your garden is one of the most important aspects of saving seed, which is why I always instruct new seed savers to find the botanical names of every plant they will grow in their garden that year and to write those names on every pack of seed they buy.  This not only helps the seed saver learn the botanical names of the plants they grow, but how they are used for saving quality seed.

Knowing a plant’s botanical name can mean the difference between seed saving success and seed saving failure. So, let’s dive in to the fascinating world of plant names.

Like humans, all plants belong to a family.  Their names, much like ours, span many generations and include ancestral relationships.  Plants are classified in descending order from Kingdom, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species and Variety.  For the purpose of seed saving, we really only need to know the Family, Genus, Species and Variety names.

But before we get into it, let me just say that some people find botanical names fascinating, while others dread it like the plague. The latter’s doom is likely caused by the use of Latin for botanical names.  We no longer learn Latin in school, and to most people it’s a difficult language whose words are hard to pronounce.

In my opinion, too many seed savers get hung up on the perfect pronunciation of botanical names.  It’s the classic, “You say toe-mahto, I say toe-mayto” kind of thing. So, unless you are a professional botanist or a perfectionist, I should think that perfect pronunciation is trivial at best. The most important thing about botanical names is not how you say them, but that you know them when you see them.

So, what is a botanical name, anyway? For simplicity’s sake, the botanical name of a plant is an epithet; a descriptive phrase that describes certain characteristics.  Botanical epithets are used worldwide to avoid confusion caused by common names that tend to change from region to region and country to country.  The most common botanical name is made up of two words written in italics and surrounded by parenthesis.  The botanical name for bell peppers is (Capsicum annum).  If you want to get specific, you can throw in the variety name for good measure; (Capsicum annum var. ‘California Wonder’).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the top of the food chain, if you will, and take a look at the major components of plant names and find out why we should know them if we want to save pure seed.

1.) Every Plant Has a Family

A family is a large group of plants that share certain characteristics, such as the presentation, shape, or placement of plant parts, including flowers, leaves, stems, fruits, etc.

What you don’t see in our the Latin name above is the name of the family to which bell peppers belong.  That’s because you don’t often find that information on plant and seed labels and most seed savers don’t stress it’s importance.  Over time, you will come to recognize family members easily. Until then, use printed or online references as a teaching tool.

I happen to know that peppers belong to the Solanaceae, or Nightshade Family, because I have learned to recognize of the shape and presentation of its flowers. All plants in this family share the same flowering characteristics. Stop for a moment and envision the slightly drooping star-shaped flower of a pepper plant. Now think of the other plants in the garden that have similar looking flowers.  If you came up with tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplant, peppers and potatoes (or even a few of these) then you’ve got the idea.

Through this simple process we can easily see a relationship between plants that at first glance, seem unrelated. After all a potato is a tuber and a tomato a juicy fruit and a pepper a crisp crunchy fruit – yet they are extremely closely related. And for the seed saver, it helps to know that one of the main characteristics of the Solanaceae family is that most of its members have perfect, self pollinating flowers.  As you will soon learn, this information becomes enormously helpful when attempting to save the seed of plants in the Solanaceae family.

Plants that belong to the same family are very closely related, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can or will cross-pollinate with one another.  You will need more information to make that determination.

2.) The Genius Genus

Within each family are one to many hundreds of genera. Each genus represents a group of plants that exhibit a unique set of characteristics within the family. In our example, Capsicum is the genus to which all sweet and hot peppers in the world belong.  Other genera in the Solanaceae family include Lycopersicon (tomatoes) and Solanum (eggplant)When discussing many species of the same genus, the genus is often abbreviated to the first letter, which, by the way, is always capitalized.

Capsicum annuum Sweet and Chili Peppers
C. baccatum Kellu-Uchu Peppers
C. frutescens Tabasco and Squash Peppers
C. pubescens Manzano Peppers

Plants that share the same family and the same genus are even more closely related than other family members. Because of this close relationship, plants that belong to the same genus have a greater potential of being able to cross pollinate one another.

4.)  Every Species is Special

Within each genus, plants are further divided into groups based on their similarities in flower, leaf and fruit.  The species name is often a direct reference to an outstanding characteristic of that particular plant, the name of the person who bred or discovered it, or the place in which it was discovered. All written in Latin, of course.

The word ‘species’ is often abbreviated to sp. or spp.

In our example, California Wonder bell peppers belong to the genus Capsicum which is further divided into approximately five domestic species, including annuum, baccatum, chinense, frutescens, and pubescens, as shown in the table above. Keep in mind that the species name never stands alone and is always accompanied by the name of its genus or its abbreviation. In our first example, annum is the species being referred to and would therefore be written: Capsicum annum, or C. annum. And, yes, botanical names are always written in italics.

One look at the chart above and you will quickly realize that the majority of the peppers in the world – both hot and sweet – belong to the species annum.  In fact, only three cultivated pepper varieties in the world are a different species of the genus Capsicum. But what does this mean to the seed saver?

It means that almost every pepper you will ever grow in your garden will be so closely related to every other pepper in your garden that they have the ability cross-pollinate (or cross-breed) one another.  It also means that the various peppers in our gardens are merely variations, or varieties, of the same genus and species.  Which leads us to the last name on our list of “must-know” names.

Plants that share the same family and have the same genus and species names absolutely have the ability to cross-pollinate one another.

4.) Variety is the Spice of Life

In our example, “California Wonder” is the specific type of Capsicum annum being discussed.  This name indicates the variety or cultivar, which is short for “cultivated variety”, of the species we are discussing. Within formally written Latin botanical names, the cultivar name is often precluded by the abbreviation “var.” (variety) as shown in our example: Capsicum annum var. ‘California Wonder’.

Of course, “California Wonder” is but one variety among hundreds of varieties of Capsicum annum.  This should suggest to the seed saver that Capsicums have great cross-breeding potential.  So when you go into the garden and realize that you have five different varieties of Capsicum annum growing, then you suddenly realize that each and every one of them has the ability to cross pollinate one another because they all belong to the same genus and species from the same family!

If two varieties belonging to the same genus and species cross pollinate one another, the resulting seed and their progeny will no longer be a pure variety, but a hybrid. 

Once you learn about how one member of a family uses its flowers to produce seed,  you are very close to understanding how the entire family works, as well.  Soon it will become easy to recognize entire families of plants with just a glance at the leaves and flowers.  And then it becomes easy to understand  how all those plants are related, what types of growing conditions they prefer, and which diseases affect members of the various families.

By leaving behind the common pet names we tend to give our plants and using their more toothy Latin botanical ones, we can rest assured that we as seed savers are armed with the knowledge needed to protect, propagate and pass pure, unadulterated heirloom seeds on to future generations.

Want to learn more about plant names and how to save seed? Then check out my book, The Garden Seed Saving Guide!

Happy seed saving!

© 2015 Jill Henderson  Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.


The Garden Seed Saving Guide by Jill HendersonThe Garden Seed Saving Guide
Seed Saving for Everyone!

Save money, become more self-sufficient and avoid GMO’s by saving seeds!  This excellent resource for beginning and hobby seed savers takes you step-by-step through every aspect of saving your own seed in plain English.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Look inside!


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.


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One response to “Seed Saving Time: What’s in a Name?

  1. Pingback: Seed Saving Time: Flowers and Pollination | Show Me Oz

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