When you read your supplement labels, you might notice that herbs often have two other words in brackets and italics after their name, like this:

Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia)

The first word outside of brackets is the herb’s common name. The words in brackets are the latin binomial names of the herb: the capitalized first word is the genus of the plant, and the second lower case word is the species of the plant. Sometimes you’ll even see it written simply as “E. angustifolia”, but it’s referring to the same latin name we mentioned above.

Why are plants named like this? Let’s bring you back to high school biology and Linnaen Taxonomy. Carl Linnaeus created a way to keep track of all of the different kinds of plants (and animals!) in the world, so that as new species were discovered, they could be grouped according to how similar they were to others.

Kingdom → Phylum → Class → Order → Family → Genus → Species

Let’s use Echinacea as an example. Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) is a plant that has a common name (what we call it normally) that is the same as it’s genus name, but this isn’t always the case. For example: Pumpkin (common name) is actually called Curcubita pepo (latin name).

medicinal herbs and supplement names

The most important sections of the Linnaen Taxonomy for dietary supplement purposes are Family, Genus, and Species.. Let’s break down Echinacea’s linnaean hierarchy:

 

Kingdom: Plantae

Phylum: Anthophyta

Class: Dycotyledonae

Order: Asterales

Family: Asteraceae

Genus: Echinacea

Species: E. angustifolia

 

Knowing the family of an herb can help explain why some people can have mild allergies to echinacea if they already have seasonal allergies. Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) and echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) come from the same family of plants (Asteraceae), and share some similar chemical constituents because of that, even though they have completely different genus and species.

You will also see “spp.” instead of a species name at times: this designates that several different species are being grouped together from the same Genus. 

For example, there are multiple different kinds of Echinacea species. In addition to Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea is also found in dietary supplements. To mention several plants from the Echinacea genus at once without naming Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia individually, “Echinacea spp.” is often written.

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