I have talked to you before about taxonomy and identifying your cactus and succulents (Learn Those Plants’ Names!,” July 14, 2022.)  And it never hurts to go back and read that article again. But the other day when I told you about my new Pachypodium succulentum x. bispinosum, after the story posted, I looked a bit closer at its name and the plant, and realized I needed to point out a few simple things that make it easier to remember and identify these plants. On this particular plant each leaf joint has two spines-bi, meaning two, and spine, meaning spine! And pachy is Latin for thick, podos or podium is Latin for foot, hence the fat caudex at the base of the plant. Pachy-thick-podium-foot-succulentum-yes, its a succulent plant-Bi-two-spinosum-spines. It all makes sense! Other plants will have names that are also based on their shape, size, their native habitat, color, all kinds of details that relate to the plant and help name it.

Now, when you come home with a cool little plant to add to the collection, it’s really easy to repot it and throw away its identification information. Admit it, you know you have done that! I did, too, when I first started my collection. And, I know too many times, the plant may not be identified other than just the word cactus or succulent. But I found out pretty fast that it’s hard to talk about that cool little plant when questions arise and you want to know more about it. I mean, come on, how many cactus are shaped like barrels? How helpful is it to tell someone about your little round cactus that isn’t doing so well and expect them to tell you what to do with it? Or you try to describe your plant with hand gestures and comparisons to odd things. Right, it’s not helpful. Common names aren’t always helpful, either, since depending on where you are, the regional common name may not be the same regional common name you know that plant by.

I also appreciate that those botanical names are a bit intimidating, as in ‘that looks like Greek to me’-because it probably is! Greek, but more often Latin. But I have learned that it really is worthwhile to keep those tags and learn those names. And the more of them you keep and learn and try to pronounce, the easier it gets and the more you will know about your plant. And the easier it is to remember the names of each one.

In plant taxonomy, the classification system goes from Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.I know the majority of us don’t need to get bogged down with that whole list of information, but you do need to pay attention to two of them, genus and species, which is what I will be talking about.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Wallace, Iowa State University

So, here are a few examples of some names and when you see why the plant has that name, it might help you understand some of your other plants’ names.

Agave neomexicana is one of the most cold-hardy agaves, blooms in twelve to fifteen years, and guess what-is native to New Mexico.

Echinocactus texensis is a cold-hardy, easy to grow cactus with lovely, feathery pink flowers, bright red fruit, and, just like its name,  is native to Texas.

The echino of echinocactus and echinocereus is Greek for spiny or sea urchin, and considering that a sea urchin just looks like a spiny ball, well, there you go.

Adenium obesum socotranum is an adenium with a fat, “obese” caudex and is indigenous to the island of Socotra.

Gasteria liliputana is a very small variety of gasteria, like the people of Gulliver’s Lilliput.

Stapelia gigantea is a succulent that makes a big, maybe six to eight-inch, flower.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

Many times if you google the name, it will be broken down into its parts and explained part by part. Or you can google the meaning of the Latin word or prefix, and the light bulb will go off, and it will begin to make sense. Sometimes the explanation of the names isn’t quite as obvious as others, but you will get some connections to where that name came from.

And what about pronunciation? Go slow, look at the word by syllables, and don’t worry if you are saying it exactly like an expert in the field would. Even some of the experts don’t say them exactly the same. I tend to say e-kine-o-cactus; others say ek-no-cactus for Echinocactus. Agave is easy-a-gav-a. Texensis is tex-in-sis. The important thing to at least try to say the name and with time you will get it right, or at least close enough for the person you are asking a question about it will know which one you are talking about.

And the list goes on. Some names are harder than others to say, some require more study and investigation than others. But along the way, you begin to see how the naming works, and it really does get easier.

And what about that very basic question about cacti vs. cactus? Cacti has always been accepted as the plural of cactus, but let’s face it, many of us automatically say cactus all the time whether we are talking in the plural or singular. Gertrud and Ad Konings wrote Cacti of Texas in their natural habitat (Cichlid Press, 2009) and here is their take on that question: “The word cactus is directly taken from the identical botanical (Latinized) name, thus the correct English plural should be cactuses, but almost all authors writing in the English language prefer to use the Latin plural, cacti, which is what we will do here.”

Now, that having been said, I will add that I have heard the big boys use both cacti and cactus when speaking about cactus in the plural or singular, and no one seems to care. I don’t remember anyone actually using the word cactuses, so I think you are covered, no matter which word you use.

What is important, however, is that you know which cactus you are talking about. So pay attention to the labels, put ID spikes in your plants, and work on saying those names. It’s okay to have to refresh your memory and read the tag again as you water or repot. I would also suggest that you put the date the plant entered your collection. It’s nice to know how old that plant is when you have had it for a long time. I have a large Gasteria excelsa that I bought in 1984, and it is still with me. I happen to know how old it is because I can remember when I bought that particular plant even though I bought it back when I didn’t always keep the tags. I know that my oldest Agave havardiana bloomed when it was thirty-two or thirty-three because I can connect when I bought it to an event that I remember. But since then, I have made it a point to add date information to my tags.

And speaking of tags, I would suggest you write on your plastic tags with pencil so you can scrub off the name with an SOS pad if you discover you have misidentified one or if the name gets changed by the cactus experts. That sometimes does happen since now they are microscopically studying plants cells, DNA, and other things I can’t explain that may put that plant in a different group or category. But it is okay to continue to use the old name, at least until the new name catches on; the plant will still be recognized.

So, your homework is to start googling the plants you do have identified, check out the word origins as you look at the plant with a more critical eye, practice saying its name out loud, and it will all come to you in time.

Hold on to that information and keep practicing.  You’ll be glad you did.