Naming plants

Although the guidelines for naming botanical species are allegedly content agnostic, some bias can still be observed in its structure and optional recommendations.

Binomial tradition

The history of modern scientific botanical nomenclature dates from the 18th century, when Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish scientist, proposed the binomial system for naming organisms in his Species plantarum and Systema naturae in 1753. The binomial system would substitute the practice of naming organisms according to their common names, which vary depending on countries and even regions. At that time Latin was the language of sciences, so till nowadays the name of species, even if derived from another language, must be latinized.

Fig. 1.: The binomial nomenclature is composed by two words.

In the still in use binomial system, a species denomination is composed by two names, representing the first capitalized name the genus the organism belongs to, and the second name (not capitalized) a specific epithet, which can be freely chosen (Fig. 1). Species names are unique and are only accepted as valid after being published in a scientific journal. Moreover, the names must be in accordance with the guidelines presented in one of five codes, being the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants, also known as the Shenzhen Code (Turland & al. 2018) of our special interest (from now referred to as “the code”), while the other four regulate the naming of hybrids, animals, prokaryotes, and viruses.

Biased guidelines

A species’ scientific name can change if it is moved from one genus to another by a taxonomist, that is a scientist specialized in classifying organisms according to their morphological, and physiological attributes. The renaming of a plant must be judged by a committee from the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, which is responsible for safeguarding the code. According to the code’s paragraph 23.2, “The epithet in the name of a species may be taken from any source whatever, and may even be composed arbitrarily”, what indicates that the code is more concerned with keeping order in the way the species are categorized, besides ensuring the correct usage of Latin suffixes, and orthography. From this perspective, the code proposes itself as being content agnostic, as expressed in paragraph 51.1:

“A legitimate name must not be rejected merely because it, or its epithet, is inappropriate or disagreeable, or because another is preferable or better known (but see Art. 56.1 and F.7.1), or because it has lost its original meaning.”

Shenzhen Code (Turland & al. 2018)

Although there is theoretically no limit to the invention of new names, the act of baptizing a species is influenced by the culture where this scientific practice was born. It is common to name plants not only guided by their phenotypical characteristics, but also according to the place it was found, and as a reverence to a person or group (patronyms). Regarding naming plants after geographical locations, the code recommends in 23A.3:

(j) Avoid using the names of little-known or very restricted localities unless the species is quite local.”

Shenzhen Code (Turland & al. 2018)

On the one hand, this recommendation, which can be read as an optional guideline instead of a mandatory rule, expresses the community’s concern with the relevance of the species name. On the other hand, it raises the question about what places might be considered “little-known or very restricted”. Interpreting the code must take into account one’s perspective: global south or global north, former colonizers or colonized, center or periphery.

The same concern with relevance is hardly present in the naming of plants after people, except for the recommendation 20A.1 that suggests keeping the privilege of having his/her name denominating a plant’s genus to natural scientists:  

(h) Not dedicate genera to persons quite unconnected with botany, mycology, phycology, or natural science in general.”

Shenzhen Code (Turland & al. 2018)

For scientists from underrepresented groups or regions who cannot rely on a tradition of natural scientists worthy of being honored in their fields, following this recommendation means unequivocally paying homage to already established figures from the global north. Besides that, the botanical community etiquette advises scientists not to name a species after his-/herself:

“[…] do not honour yourself in the name of a new taxon or a replacement name. Many would regard such an act as appallingly egocentric. However, there is nothing wrong with publishing a new combination or name at new rank for which the basionym, already published by someone else, honours you.”

(Turland 2019, p.43)


The code refers to the act of giving a species a person’s name as “commemorating a person”. Against the code’s recommendations, naming organisms after relatives, donors, public personalities, and even fictional characters, seems to be common practice in the natural sciences. Some examples of plants named after famous people are:

  • Dudleya hendrixii S.McCabe & Dodero (Jimmi Hendrix).
  • Genlisea hawkingii Silva, Płachno, Carvalho & Miranda, 2020 (Stephen Hawking).
  • Ipomoea kahloae Gonz.-Martínez, Lozada-Pérez & Rios-Carr. (Frida Kahlo).
  • Macrocarpaea dies-viridis J.R. Grant, 2007 (the punk rock band Green Day).
  • Pseudharpinia planti Andrade & Senna, 2020 (Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant).

Organisms from other kingdoms have been named after many other celebrities, such as Lady Gaga, Ozzy Osbourne, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Shakira, and David Bowie, besides fictional characters from the Harry Potter series.

To conclude I would like to formulate 7 questions to guide the further reflection on the botanical nomenclature topic:

  1. From which perspective should the code be interpreted, e.g. when referring to “little-known” localities?
  2. What are relevance criteria for naming new plant species?
  3. Should morphological aspects be prioritized against preferences and personal affinities represented by the practice of naming after persons?
  4. What are the acceptable limits in the choice of plant’s patronyms (names honoring persons)?
  5. Are the guidelines for naming plants inclusive? For instance, can we still name plants after non-binary persons using the rules present in the code?
  6. Does naming after persons represent a loss of dimensionality in the binomial system? Would it be more objective (thus scientific) to give a species a name which denotes any of its specific characteristics?
  7. Is the act of giving organisms human names a colonizing practice?


Turland, N. J., Wiersema, J. H., Barrie, F. R., Greuter, W., Hawksworth, D. L., Herendeen, P. S., Knapp, S., Kusber, W.-H., Li, D.-Z., Marhold, K., May, T. W., McNeill, J., Monro, A. M., Prado, J., Price, M. J. & Smith, G. F. (eds.) (2018). International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (Shenzhen Code) adopted by the Nineteenth International Botanical Congress Shenzhen, China, July 2017. Regnum Vegetabile 159. Glashütten: Koeltz Botanical Books.

Turland, Nicholas (2019). The Code Decoded. Advanced Books.