Many plants have multiple common names. For example, Yucca filamentos is also called Adam’s needle and Spanish bayonet. Rudbeckia hirta is also known as Black eyed Susan and Gloriosa daisy. The woodland plant Cimicifuga racemosa is known as blacksnake root, black cohosh, and black bugbane. Which name are you going to chose? If you don’t know all of the names you may lose out on something.
Names can also be very misleading. Geranium is the common name of the popular tender perennial, Pelargonium, that people buy by the dozen but isn’t related to the hardy perennial, Geranium spp. with the common name of cranesbill. Red cedar is not a cedar at all; it is a juniper. Lavender cotton is neither lavender nor cotton. Which is a true lily? Daylily, Lily of the Valley, Lily of the Nile, Peruvian lily, or Oriental lily? If I give you the Latin names you will know immediately: Hemerocallis, Convallaria, Agapanthus, Alstroemeria, Lilium, respectively. Easy, the only true lily in the list is Oriental lily with the botanical name Lilium.
The botanical names give you useful information just from the name itself. All you have to do is know a few common Latin words, many of which you will recognize. The second or species name of the two-part botanical name carries this information. For example, the botanical name for the opium poppy is Papaver somniferum. All poppies will have the genus name Papaver but the species name tells us something distinguishing about this poppy. The species name, somniferum, is made up from two Latin words: somnus meaning sleep and fero meaning carry, or bear. So Papaver somniferum is the sleep bearing poppy referring to its narcotic properties. Some other examples are: Lathyrus oderatus is fragrant sweet pea; Centranthus ruber , is red valerian; Solidago canadensis, is a goldenrod indigenous to Canada/North America. By learning a few Latin words specifically chosen for a botanical vocabulary you will know something about a lot of plants; but that is another post.
Learning some Latin words doesn’t have to be difficult. You don’t have to be able to come up with them yourself to benefit. Just learn them well enough to recognize them in reading and you will gain a lot. And don’t be put off by the pronunciation of the Latin words; there are some rules for pronouncing them if you want to go this next step, but the rules are really not hard and lots of people break them on a regular basis and still get along fine. In fact, some mispronunciations are considered the norm. Pronunciation is another post.