Does This Scientific Name Belong to a Tree, Flower, Grass or Bush?

SCIENCE

Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: THEPALMER/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

About This Quiz

First things first: what's a "scientific name"? It's the genus and species of a plant (or animal, but we're not worrying about them here). We get this naming convention from Linnaean taxonomy. And for that, we have Carl Linnaeus to thank, a influential figure in several fields, but none so big as taxonomy. To honor this Swedish superstar of science, we've created this quiz on the scientific names of trees, bushes, grasses and flowers. 

Don't worry, you don't have to identify the exact plant by its scientific name; you'll just need to place it in one of the four categories above. And, OK: There is some overlap in these categories. Trees and bushes usually have flowers; that's how most plants reproduce, through the seeds that flowers create. However, what we're looking for is the first category that leaps to mind. For example, when we say "rose," you automatically think "flower," even though roses grow on bushes. And "holly" is a bush, despite the fact that it has small white blossoms. 

At this point, you might be "I don't know any scientific names of trees or bushes or grasses!" You'd be surprised, though: If you like to garden, you've probably seen all kinds of formal names on seed packages. You might not realize how much you've picked up. In other places, it won't take much guesswork. The family name of all the pine trees is "Pinus," which is not much of a leap. 

Ready to tackle this botany quiz? Let's go -- make Carl proud!


What sort of plant is the Sequoiadendron giganteum?

This is the scientific name for one species of redwood tree, the tallest trees in the world. Fun fact: China has redwood trees, like the West Coast of California; their family is called the "Metasequoidae." Very sci-fi-sounding!

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You might put the fruit of Solanum lycopersicum in your pasta sauce. It comes from a ...

As you probably guessed, we're talking about the beloved tomato. The Solanaceae family are more commonly called the "nightshades." This group is an odd mix of delicious edibles and toxic plants.

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Don't worry, the ______ called Papaver orientale is not drug-producing; it's perfectly legal to grow.

Gardeners love to grow poppies, especially the Oriental poppy variety. Despite what impressionable people might tell you, you're not going to get in trouble with the law for growing them. They're not the same as the opium poppy.

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Around Halloween, you might want a curcurbita pepo. What would you harvest one from?

We're talking about the big, beautiful pumpkin, from which jack-o-lanterns are made. These grow on vines, and some of them get so big that they have to be hauled in the beds of pickup trucks to the pumpkin-weighing contests that are popular in the fall.

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The Euphorbia pulcherria decorates houses, in red or creamy white, at Christmastime. Which of these is it?

The name "Euphorbia" might remind you of "Eufloria," the national florist chain ... and that's fitting. This is the scientific name for the poinsettia plant. Mexican in origin, it was named for a U.S. ambassador to that country, Joel Poinsett.

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Chyrsanthemum indicum is a favored decoration for the house in the autumn. What sort of plant is it?

You might have found this one easy, because the common name, "chrysanthemum," is also the family name. Then again, maybe you didn't ... you might know this plant as a "mum." We don't blame anyone for using the nickname. This is one plant whose common name is really hard to spell!

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Appropriately, the Eschscholzia californica is a golden color. What exactly is it?

Of course, this is the humble California poppy, the state flower of California. Some are a bright yellow-gold, but you might be more familiar with the orange-gold variety, seen all over the Golden State. It's all right to pick 'em; don't let Californians tell you it's a crime.

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Look for the Pinus ponderosa in the Pacific Northwest. It's a type of ...

You probably only needed the name for this one. It's the Ponderosa pine, which has given its name to all sorts of motels, lodges and restaurants in the western United States. Alternate names for it are the "blackjack pine" or "yellow pine."

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Want a mild kick in your cooking? Add Capsicum annum, which comes from a ...

The Capsicum annum is the bell pepper. Most of them have a mildly spicy flavor, not real heat. But don't worry, you'll see at least one of the mouth-searing, ice-water-demanding peppers elsewhere in this quiz!

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They're especially fond of the Helianthus annuus in Kansas; in Mexico, it's a "girasol." What kind of plant is it?

We're talking about the common yet gorgeous sunflower. Kansas is the Sunflower State. Meanwhile, in Latin American countries, the sunflower is a "girasol," a name that hints at the way the flower's face turns to follow the sun.

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Don't cry! There's no evidence that the Salix babylonica is any less happy than other plants. By the way, it's a ...

We're talking about the big, showy "weeping willow." This tree fascinates botanists, and has been traded and hybridized. So, when you see one in a city park, you might not be looking at an "original formula" weeping willow but a botanist's creation.

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Acer saccharum is where we get delicious maple syrup. It's which of these?

"Acer" is the family that the maples belong to. Acer saccharum is the sugar maple, the source of maple syrup. Accept no substitutes, no matter how charming and motherly the woman-shaped bottle of imitation maple syrup is!

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The Rosa rugosa is commonly found in Asia, and isn't like showy domestically-bred cousins. Which of these is it?

The family name "Rosa" is a clear tipoff here. "Rugosa" doesn't tell you as much about what this bloom is, or looks like, unless you know some Latin; "rugose" means "wrinkly" and is related to our English word "rugged."

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The Quercus lobata produces acorns, and is associated with California. What is it?

You can keep your pine forests; give us a strong, spreading valley oak, also known as Quercus lobata. It provides shade on otherwise dry, open hills, and is a nice growing environment for mistletoe, which can then be knocked loose for Christmas decorations.

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We're glad F. Scott Fitzgerald didn't name Gatsby's love interest "Bellis perennis," using the common name instead. What kind of plant are we talking about?

"Bellis perennis" is the scientific name for the common daisy. Daisy Buchanan, of course, was Jay Gatsby's lost love in "The Great Gatsby." In choosing the name, instead of something more elegant like "Lily," Fitzgerald might have been telling us that Daisy was pretty but simple.

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Piper nigrum hangs out next to the salt shaker on your table. But it grows as a what?

Piper nigrum is black pepper, though in its natural state, it's a pink-red color. Making things more complicated, it can be harvested early for a green peppercorn, stripped to its interior for white pepper. And it grows as a vine, often climbing trees in Vietnam or India.

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Despite its common name, Muhlenbergia rigens won't attract deer to graze on your landscaping. What kind of plant are we talking about?

This is the formal name for "deergrass." It's a bunchgrass, and grows in large, plumelike mounds that are attractive in landscaping. Beyond that, it has the advantages of being unpalatable to deer and other grazers, and in shoring up weak slopes with its strong roots.

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Don't be misled by its little, bonnet-shaped blooms; Convallaria majalis is poisonous. It's a ...

The hint here is the syllable "valla" in "Convallaria," which hints at the word "valley." This plant is known by several other names, like "Our Lady's tears" or "Mary's tears." Despite being toxic, it is very sweet-smelling.

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You might put sprigs of Ilex aquifolium near your poinsettias, as a decoration. What type of plant is it?

This is the scientific name for holly. Because it's evergreen and produces berries in wintertime -- an uncommon trait -- holly has long been a favored Christmas decoration. Just don't use its berries in Christmas treats: It's toxic to humans.

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The syllable "tri" is a clue to the identity of the Trifolium repens. What type of plant is it?

We're talking about the classic, cheery clover. This type of grass usually has three leaves, and so finding a four-leaf clover is said to bring you good luck. But why stop there? Reportedly, people have found five-, six- and seven-leaf clovers in clover patches. We hate to think how long they spent looking!

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You'll find the sturdy Pinus taeda in the Carolina woods. Which of these is it?

This is the loblolly pine, found in the Southeastern United States, especially the Carolinas. How'd it get it's nursery-rhyme-sounding name? "Loblolly" is an old word for "bubbling stew," after the swamps the pines tend to grow near. "Taeda," in the scientific name, is Latin for "torch." This seems to refer to the pine being very resinous, thus good for torch-making.

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Without the malus pumila, we'd have nothing to put on Teacher's desk on the first day of school. It's a type of what?

Malus pumila is the apple tree. Around the world, these trees produce more than 80 tons of fruit per year. Apples are used in baking, other forms of cooking, cider-making (alcoholic or otherwise) and for eating straight from the fridge or tree.

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You'll need to plant a bulb if you want to enjoy a Hyacinthus orientalis. It's a type of what?

Hyacinths are popular spring flowers with a stiff, honeycomb-like group of blossoms and a very strong scent. Fun fact: The old-fashioned woman's name "Jacinth" is a variant of the word "Hyacinth," and gets our vote for the name that should enjoy a resurgence in the next baby boom.

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Like its name suggests, parts of the Populus tremuloides tend to shake in even light winds. What kind of plant is it?

This is the scientific name for the quaking aspen. It's often planted as a decorative tree, which has white bark and paddle-shaped leaves that tremble in the breeze. The leaves also turn a rich shade of yellow in autumn.

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You'll find Capiscum chinense at the top of the Scoville scale. You'll also find it on which of these?

Reigning supreme over even the jalapeno and serrano peppers, in terms of heat, is the habanero pepper. In Caribbean cooking, you might hear in called the Scotch Bonnet pepper. Either way, you want to be very respectful of this small, orange-yellow fellow.

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You wouldn't vaccinate someone with the Vaccinium cyanococcus; the clue's in the second half. What kind of plant is this?

We're talking about the pride of New England, the blueberry. Delicious in pancakes, waffles, muffins, and many other kinds of breadstuff, blueberries have a close cousin in the bilberry, which are also blue and edible. The cranberry is not so close a relation.

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Who's afraid of Panicum vergatum? Not prairie dwellers, who are familiar with this type of ...

The common name of this plant is switchgrass. It can be found all over the prairie states, from Canada down through Mexico. And yes, another of its common names is "panic grass," along with "redtop" and "Wobsqua grass."

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The Acer rubrum is really something to see in the autumn woods. What kind of plant is it?

This is the formal name for the red maple. It's the most common deciduous tree in the United States. Undoubtedly it's been helped by some deliberate planting, as the tree explodes into red leaves in the fall, and is lovely to look at.

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Descendants of Tulipa gesneriana sparked a buying craze in 17th-century Holland. It's which kind of plant?

Of course, the family name gives it away; it's the tulip, a popular spring flower. The tulip was so popular in Holland that it was bought and sold strictly as an investment, and then prices became so inflated that some investors were ruined in the resulting crash. Having learned our lesson, humans now only make sober, proven investments. Like in Bitcoin.

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When you see Poa pratensis, it might inspire you to pull out your fiddle and play something old-timey. What is it?

What we're talking about here is Kentucky bluegrass, which is a real plant, as well as a genre of American music. You might consider bluegrass as American as apple pie, but it's found in far-flung places like Algeria and north Asia.

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What the Europeans call an aubergine grows on Solanum melongea. That's a type of _____.

The eggplant or aubergine grow on small bushes that are part of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and potatoes. The eggplant is known for its gorgeous color and its size, but it's not a nutritional powerhouse.

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If it's elegance you seek, look no further than Zantedeschia aethiopica. It's a ...

This is the name of the calla lily, a gorgeously long-throated white flower. They are a common flower in funeral decorations, and also a favorite of gardeners. They grow from a rhizome, which should be dug up in for the winter in northern climates.

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The rhyming Betula pendula often provides a canopy for smaller plants below it. What kind of plant is this?

The common name for the Betula pendula is the silver birch. This tree is a real Employee of the Month in the plant world, often the first to rebound after forest fires, and a good provider of shade and space for smaller plants beneath it.

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What kind of plant is Mahonia aquafolium, a state symbol for a Western U.S. state?

This is the scientific name for the Oregon grape. Which is, confusingly, not really a grape vine, but an evergreen shrub. Also, it's found around the West, from California to Canada. It's so hard to make plants respect state borders!

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The Linnaea borealis was one of Carl Linnaeus's favorite plants. It's which of these?

Hey, we couldn't complete a taxonomy quiz without a nod to Carl Linnaeus, who gave us the very naming system that we're working with. The botanical community gave this scientist a greater honor when they named one of his favorite flowers, the twinflower, after him.

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