What's in a name?

Many people are familiar with common grass names such as Kentucky bluegrass. In addition, grass plants (like all plants) have two-part botanical names. While the mere use of such scientific names makes most people tune out, the fact is, they can be helpful, even to us nonscientists.

Botanical names pop out because they are italicized or underlined. The first word is the genus and is capitalized. This first word indicates a group of species that have similar structural parts.

The second italicized word is the species, which is not capitalized, and indicates similar plants that can inter-breed true to their parents. Knowing that Kentucky bluegrass is also called Poa pratensis allows you to identify other plants from the same genus and species. This is because botanical names also include the genus, Poa, and the species, pratensis.

Botanists take plant names a step further by assigning individual plants a third name that shows if they are a variety, or cultivar.

Varietal plants develop in nature, through natural selection. The varietal name follows the genus and species and is frequently seen italicized after the abbreviation var. For example, Poa pratensis var.Park is another name for Park, one of the original Kentucky bluegrasses.

As we encounter more improved grasses, you are more apt to come across plants that are cultivars, meaning they were created through deliberate breeding.

Cultivar names also follow the genus and species but are enclosed in single quotes and are not italicized or underlined. If you were to see Poa pratensis 'America', you would know that you were dealing with a cultivar of Kentucky bluegrass called America.