Botanical Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Spend any amount of time in the plant hobby, and you'll very quickly discover that there are formal scientific naming conventions for everything.

While many of the plants we all grow and collect have common names we refer to them by ("elephant ear," "prayer plant," "Swiss cheese plant," and "air plant," just to name a few), they also have Latin-based scientific names.

Without getting too far into the history weeds (there are a lot of online articles about the history of botanical Latin if you'd like to dive in at greater detail than what I lay out here), the current naming convention has been around since the mid-1700s when Swedish biologist and physician Carl Linnaeus developed his system for naming all living things.

This system is called binomial nomenclature because it is made up of two parts: genus and species. Plants can also have a third part, which is variety or cultivar, as we'll see in the example below.

If we're being honest with ourselves, most of us hobbyists don't really use the proper scientific syntax for writing plant names, but I won't have anyone here say that I didn't teach you how to do it properly. The official convention is:

  • Genus - First word capitalized and in italics
  • species - Second word lowercase, also in italics
  • 'Variety' or 'Cultivar' - If applicable, variety (variation occurring in nature) or cultivar (man-made variation) can generally be represented with a capital first letter inside single quotation marks, no italics.

Now that's all fine and dandy, but what happens when you start to see little shorthand words like "aff," "cf," or "sp."?

Below, I've highlighted some of the most common botanical terms you'll see in plant names and their meanings. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it's a good place to get started.

General Latin Taxonomy

Note: I use anthuriums in most of the examples below because this information was originally included as part of my Anthurium Terminology Cheat Sheet before I decided to separate it out into its own post. While I present a lot of the information below in the context of anthuriums, these terms are applicable to all plants, not just anthuriums.



Short for "affinis"

This taxon is given to a plant that closely resembles the named species but isn’t identical to that species. This can also be written as sp. aff.

Ex: Anthurium besseae aff.  |  Besseae aff. is a commonly-found plant on the market that looks similar to – but is not – a true besseae.

Random aside: If you’ve never seen a true besseae I highly recommend you look one up because it’s SO pretty. Its ruffled edges are to die for.


Short for “confer”

This taxon is given to a plant that isn’t identical to the named species, but is still determined to probably belong to that species. 

Ex: Anthurium cf. metallicum  |  A plant commonly sold by South American sellers that has a more rounded leaf shape than what I've typically seen in metallicum, but does have similar venation.


  • I've seen Ecuagenera refer to cf as “cultivar form,” but I have not seen this used by anyone else and as far as I know, that is not what “cf” actually means.
  • I found a good explanation of the difference between “aff.” and “cf.” on a forum: “cf. is used when you have a specimen that is very close to something you know, but you are not sure if it is different. Whereas aff. is used when you have a specimen that is similar to something you know, but you are sure it is different.” (Source)

sp., spp.

Short for “species” (spp. is simply the plural form of sp.)

As discussed previously, plant names are formatted as [Genus] [species]. “sp” is used in a plant name when the exact species name isn’t known or available. 

Ex: Anthurium sp. Morona  |  Refers to an unnamed/undescribed species of anthurium with the placeholder "Morona" for the Morona region (presumably the Morona-Santiago province of Ecuador). 

Ex: Anthurium sp. Napo, also known as Anthurium nigrolaminum 'Gigi'  |  This one is fun. It refers to an undescribed cultivar of the species nigrolaminum from the Napo province of Ecuador. Despite not yet being formally described and named in the scientific community, it currently circulates in the market under the cultivar name 'Gigi.'

sp. nov 

Short for “species nova”

This taxon is given to a new species of plant. It appears after the binomial name when a plant is published and described in an academic publication for the first time.

When accompanied with a placeholder name (see the examples below), this taxon also indicates a new species whose formal publication and description is currently pending. It is estimated that there are hundreds of anthurium species currently pending formal publication.

Ex: Anthurium sp. nov “DF”  |  Refers to an unnamed new species with the placeholder “DF” for Dewey Fisk.

Ex: Anthurium sp. nov Darién  |   Refers to an unnamed new species with the placeholder name Darién for the Darién Province of Panama where it was found.

Ex: Anthurium annularum sp. nov. and A. chucantiense sp. nov.,, published for the first time in 2016 by Orland O Ortiz, Riccardo M Baldini, Guido Berguido & Thomas B Croat. (Source)


  • I’ve seen some new, undescribed plants simply labeled “sp.” and not “sp. nov.” I haven’t been able to find an explanation for why this might be. If anyone can explain why a new undescribed plant might be labeled simply “sp.” and not “sp. nov” please let me know!

Infraspecific Taxa

I've grouped the terms below because they represent specific ways that you can identify plants at a deeper level beyond just "species."

An infraspecific plant name or taxon is just a really fancy way of saying that a certain plant belongs to a subdivision of a species. This could be a botanical variety, cultivar, subspecies, etc.

Scientists use infraspecific taxa to describe "biologically meaningful" groups of plants, some of which may occur naturally in the wild and others which may be man-made.

From an article in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society:

By ‘biologically meaningful groups’, we mean groups of interest from the perspective of evolutionary theory as groups in which evolutionary novelties (often, adaptations) have established themselves or are in the process of establishing themselves. A biologically meaningful group thus represents a step in the evolutionary process and has its own evolutionary trajectory separate from other groups.

Thomas A C Reydon & Werner Kunz, "Classification below the species level: when are infraspecific groups biologically meaningful?"

This is a gross oversimplification of the process of classifying organism into species and subgroups, and if you'd like to learn more about the current state of affairs in the scientific community I highly recommend you read Reydon & Kunz's article above.

This, however, is all you really need to understand right now.

Let's get into some common sub-groupings.


Short for “cultivar” or "cultivated variety"

Cultivar names are given when a genetic mutation occurs due to human influence, such as selective breeding or growing in a greenhouse. The abbreviation cv. is used to signify that the mutation is a cultivar. (Source)

Alternatively, many people choose to drop the "cv." and write the cultivar name in single quotation marks instead. Both are acceptable. I think. 

Ex: Anthurium dressleri cv. Eastern Panama (can also be written as Anthurium dressleri 'Eastern Panama')  |  Refers to a specific cultivar of dressleri that was developed under man-made conditions.


Short for "forma"

Form is used to describe a group of plants that have minor but noticeable morphological differences from the main species. This is different from a variety in that varieties often have predictable & inheritable traits, whereas a form can crop up randomly and sporadically in a plant population. (Source)

A form can also be used to group plants across different species based on similar traits.

Wild flowers are a good basic example.

Ex: Let's say you have 10 species of wild flower in a valley. They are all usually colored, but occasionally (& seemingly at random), some flowers crop up that are white. Let's name this form of white flowers "f. alba." Now, whenever white flowers appear, we can give them the form designation "f. alba" even if they are different flower species. We would write their names in the format [Genus] [species] f. alba.


Short for “varietas"

Variety (rather than cultivar) names are given when a genetic mutation occurs in nature, often from natural cross-pollination. Unlike plant forms that occur in the wild (see f. above), varieties have more stable traits that can be passed on to offspring.

The abbreviation var. is used to signify that the mutation is a variety. (Source)

Ex: Anthurium insigne var. panguiensii  |  Refers to a specific variation in the the insigne species that was collected from the wild.

Honorable Mentions

subsp. (subspecies), subvar. (subvariety), and subf. (subform) are also valid rankings below the level of species, but I have never encountered these in my own plant collecting.

If you are at the level where you need to know these terms, I salute you. Feel free to drop any information on these in a comment below so that you can teach me!

Helpful Resources

If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, I've included a couple of additional blog posts and webpages below to help you dive into the subject a little bit more. Have fun!


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