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Plants are classified by Latin names in botany; yet many people become confused between plants because of the common usage of often misused English names.

In aromatherapy, it is essential to know the species of plant from which an essential oil was extracted from, in order to use it for its correct purpose.  However, many people refer to essential oils as simply “lavender” or “rose”. But there are many varieties of rose and lavender; both flowers are used as an essential oil in aromatherapy, yet the properties of a particular oil can vary, depending on the variety of lavender or rose being used.

The same is true in botany. A rose is actually more than just a rose; it may be a damask or an alba or any number of different species of rose found in gardens today.  Scientific plant classification, and the use of Latin names, allows us to identify the exact species of rose, or any other plant in the botanical world, and use the right essential oil to treat a particular problem.

Plant Classification in Botany

The classification of  plants is a difficult process as a lot of plants are inter-related and resemble each other.  The introduction of hybrid plants (those which have been crossed with another species of plant) complicates things further.  However, all plants are classified in an order, from the most basic to the most complex.  A plant's botanical classification helps describe its position in the plant kingdom and how it interacts with other plants.

The botanist's plant classification system is complicated.  In basic terms, plants are divided into twelve divisions; these divisions are bryophates (three divisions), seedless plants (four divisions), angiosperms (one division) and gymnosperms (four divisions). The divisions are then divided into classes, orders, families, genera and finally species.  It is the genera (or genus) and species which give a plant its scientific classification.

The Linnaeus Plant Classification System

The scientific plant classification system was invented in the eighteenth century by a Swedish botanist called Carolus Linnaeus.  Linnaeus devised a system whereby a plant is given a binomial name, that is a name in two parts, consisting of genus (generic) and species.  All plant names are in Latin and the first part of the name, the genus, is a noun; the second part of the plant name, the species, is an adjective which describes the genus. 

The botanist who names a particular plant is represented by a letter, following the botanical name.  If the plant's botanical name is later changed, the original botanist who classified it still maintains the notification in parentheses.  An example of the classification system is found in lavender; lavandula officinalis and lavandula latifolia are both species of lavender but the former is “true lavender” and the latter is “spike lavender”.

The binomial name of a plant describes the plant.  The name can relate to the common name of the plant, describe the way it looks, indicate how the plant smells or tastes, any chemicals which may be present within the plant or how the plant actually grows.  It can also describe the plant's origin and can even be named after a prominent person.

Understanding the plant classification system is important in order to understand the different types of essential oils available.  A basic understanding of botanical plant names is valuable in the study of aromatherapy.


Price, Shirley 2000 Aromatherapy Workbook London, UK: Thorsons

This article was written by Sharon Falsetto and appeared in its original format on Suite101 as The Classification of Botanical Plants

It is expressively prohibited to copy or use this article in any way unless written permission is given by the author Sharon Falsetto.  If it is discovered that copyright laws have not been complied with, legal action will be pursued by the author Sharon Falsetto.

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