Scientific v. Common Name

Revised after @bouteloua’s change to post title to be more inclusive, not just my taxon or plants. I’m interested in hearing about any taxa you’ve come across where:

  1. The scientific name very much agrees with one of its common names.
  2. The scientific name very much disagrees with one of its common names.
  3. If there’s any history you’re aware of or know why it’s named that way.

For example:

Polycarpon Tetraphyllum(Fourleaf Manyseed): Literal translation from scientific to common name, very agreeable since it’s so direct!

Acmispon Americanus(Spanish Clover): Not native to Spain, doesn’t seem related to American Northwest’s history as a Spanish territory which ended in 1821. Based on Dictionary of Botanical Epithets I would expect it to be either Acmispon hispanicus(Spanish Clover) or Acmispon americanus(American Clover).

History: Scholar Googling with date-range filtering to 1930s for Acmispon americanus shows:

Speculation: Maybe it was just a common name for some Fabaceae at the time?

Note: Agreeable/disagreeable is entirely subjective… I’m just interested in hearing your experience.


Many common names, especially for species that people typically interact with, have nothing to do with their scientific names. In many cases, they predate the scientific names. Expecting the two to correspond to each other ignores the long history that we as humans have with the world around us.

Where we do see a correspondence (as in your Polycarpon example), we find one of two things – either the individual giving the scientific name was actively trying to use the common name, or the common name is a very recent thing, given as the result of increased interest in natural history. (A lot of moth names fit this scenario, for example.)


Thanks @psweet, that makes sense. I’ve revised my post slightly. What I’m interested in the cases where there’s either a lot of agreement or disagreement between the scientific and a common name, mostly to understand how that became the case.

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Bombus sonorus (Sonoran bumblebee): “sonorous” actually refers to sound (=resonating, clamorous, booming) not the Sononoran desert or state of Sonora. The common name is probably a misunderstanding of the actual meaning of the Latin “sonorus”. It is rare in the Sonoran desert, where it probably just occurs only near the edge. We should be calling it the “sonorous bumblebee” in reference to its loud buzzing sound when it flies (though no louder than any other similar-sized bumblebee.


Well… common names seem to originate in two main ways.

Older common names were generally used for these plants before they had scientific names applied, or at least they were used by people (e.g. farmers, gatherers) who didn’t have any need to use the scientific name. For that reason, they’re often “misaligned” with scientific names, so a particular taxon may have different common names in different regions and cultures, and a single common name may apply to a bunch of different species, sometimes not closely related ones. In these cases, determining why a plant has a particular common name often is a matter of conjecture.

In contrast, a newer common names may be proposed by the scientist describing particular new species. Or it may have been coined by a naturalist who preferred to use a non-Latin name. For those reasons, many newer common names are direct translations from the scientific name and are specific to that taxon.

“Spanish Clover” seems to be one of those older cases where several different plants have been given the same common name. Several of these plants have also been called “Mexican Clover”. And most of these plants also have other common names.

It looks like Acmispon americanus received its initial scientific description in 1812 as Lotus sericeus, and spent a long while under the names Hosackia purshiana and Lotus americanus. I can’t find any 19th-century references to Spanish Clover as a common name for this plant, but it does show up in the 1902 Botanical Survey of San Jacinto Mountain.

That 1902 source doesn’t give any suggestion as to the origin of the common name. The OUP has a blog post from 2016 on the etymology of “clover”, which is best summarized as being uncertain. The writer feels that most likely the word comes from the same route as “cleave”, in the “cleave to” sense of being adhesive and may refer to the sticky sweetness of Trifolium sap. Regardless of the origin, “clover” seems to have become used very widely for many related plants in Faboideae, especially if they were used for animal forage or found in meadows.

I would guess that the “Spanish” element came from an association with Spanish-speaking (i.e. Mexican) ranchers in either California or Texas. I can imagine various native Faboideae plants that were palatable to cattle getting called “Trébol” and then “Spanish Clover”. Absent a citation that explicitly gives an explanation for “Spanish Clover” I think that’s probably as close as we’re going to get.


Erica ericoides
An erica that looks like an erica. So unlikely that it gets naming rights.
But Linnaeus put it in Blaeria
Taxonomy rules say keep the old name, even if it is wrong


@vreinkymov Welcome to the Forum!
Two name changes that continually annoy me (two scientific, plus one common) after coming back to the moth field after 34 years:
Pseudaletia unipuncta has been renamed Mythimna unipuncta. I hate that!
In a double whammy, Scotogramma trifolii has been renamed Anarta trifolii and the common name seems to be ‘the Nutmeg’ rather than ‘the Clover Cutworm’.
Such are the burdens we must bear!!


There is also the matter that many taxa have multiple vernacular names, and their usage differs across their range.

The will to assign a single common name to plants is fairly new. The tree Eucalyptus obliqua is known as stringybark, messmate or browntop depending on where you are. One of them is not more correct than the others.

A dogwood in my area is a member of the genus Pomaderris, but is something else entirely in northern Australia or in the Americas.


I can think of a confusing naming issue of 2 Acacia trees (Now the genus is referred to by some botanists as Vichellia). The tree known as Acacia seyal, is a species that is rare in Egypt, but the name of the species seyal is the Arabic common name of another Acacia species which in Latin is called Acacia tortillis subsp radiana. Very confusing. I do not know the reason behind this issue.


One that I always think of is a case where the common name used to agree (kind of) with the scientific name, but thanks to taxonomic revisions, it no longer does:
Chrysalidocarpus lutescens (Butterfly Palm)
The genus name actually combines chryso- meaning “gold” with carpus meaning “fruit”; but to people familiar with insect life cycles, it would remind them of a chrysalis, hence, a butterfly.
Now, however, there has been a taxonomic revision, and this beautiful palm has the ugly scientific name Dypsis lutsecens.

This is not the only case of a common name coming from an imaginiative reinterpretation of the scientific name. Oldenlandia corymbosa – the genus is named after a botanist, Henrik Bernard Oldenland. But it sounds like “olden land,” meaning the old country, and so it has the common name Old World Diamond Flower.

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Salsola tragus because it was introduced has a full list of English common names like “Russian Thistle”, latin name is not it and it’s even funnier that one of synonyms for it was Salsola iberica.

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That’s a good one, reminds me of the Polish composer, Kryzstof Penderecki’s song De Natura Sonoris No 1 & 2. I guess it’s a song inspired by the nature of the Sonoran desert?

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Thank you for that very thorough explanation! I agree with the plausibility of how Spanish came to be associated with Acmispon americanus. I took for granted “clover” though, so thanks for the etymology of it too. Out of curiosity, how do you go about tracing the naming history of a plant taxon to it’s first observation?


I like that one too! I guess it could be a historical precedent for adding ‘-oides’ to something when a discoverer is unable to come up with a good distinctive characteristic about a taxon and doesn’t want to name it after someone?

Thanks for the welcome! I’ve seen that happen with plants too. A reference from 2007 I was using for ID referred to something as Microseries lindleyi but it had been renamed to Uropappus lindleyi. I imagine it’s more frustrating the longer one has known it by its older name.

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I think I’ve seen something like this with pigweed, which can refer to various Amaranthus and some others too.

Oh wow! That must be very confusing trying to the rarity of Acacia seyal with non-naturalists who see “seyal” everywhere.

I like that information about Oldenlandia corymbosa, it’s almost like a backronym, a slang term for taking a group of letters and making words to fit them (a reverse acronym).

The Bad-wing Moth is an interesting one. I believe its common name comes from the fact that its hindwings are unusually small, often less than half the size of the forewing. This can make pinning and spreading their wings very difficult. Perhaps attempts to do so were swiftly “aborted” due to this, leading to the scientific name D. abortivaria.


That is a sad story.

Acacia was named for the iconic thorn trees of Africa. That was first. Taxonomists decided to move the thorny type specimen to Vachellia … because you can’t expect Australian horticulture to change all their labels!

We have to learn new names for our plants. And fend off invasive alien Australian wattles, which are called … Acacia!