Do you have a problem with botanical names for plants ? Are you intimidated by the Latin? Maybe you agree with Shakespeare when he said:
‘ What’ s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. Romeo and Juliet.
Since Theophrastus man has been attempting to classify plants and put them into groups according to what they looked like. The scientific language for this was always Latin. Until Linneus came along plant names were getting longer and more unwieldy.
Linneus created his Systema Naturae which was a innovative attempt to classify living organisms in a scientific way. In Fundamenta Botanica he laid out his sexual system of classification and it outraged people because he classified plants according to their reproductive organs. He counted the stamens and pistils and his descriptions were deliberately provocative and caused outrage. You can imagine how a description like this went down. ‘ Therefore the Calyx is the bedroom, the Corolla is the curtain,the Filaments are the spermatic vessels, the Anthers are the testicles, the Pollen is the sperm, the Stigma is the vulva, the Style is the vagina…’ Oh dear. An interest in flowers had always been considered nice for ladies and now here it was turned into pornography. Most people refused to accept that plants behaved like that.
What we really have to thank Linneus for is the system we have now, which is called Binominal nomenclature. It is a very good system which means that plants have two names, the first is the genus which is a bit like a surname. The next is called the specific epithet and is a descriptive word. The genus (plural genera) is always written with a capital letter and the specific epithet never is, even if it commemorates a name. Both words are written in italics. The name of the cultivar is in inverted commas and it is not italicised.
Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’.
I don’ t understand why people have such a resistance to mastering the correct botanical name for plants. Is it because it is considered elitist, or showing off to know the correct name? Is it a fear of Latin? True, Latin is not taught so much in schools now, but my Latin ‘O’ level study of Virgil isn’ t much help in learning botanical names. It does take a little extra effort to learn them but it is worth it. If you know the correct name for a plant, it is international and you can discuss plants with anyone in the world who is interested in plants. How amazing to have an international language.
The other great advantage of the binominal system is that the specific epithet often tells you something about the plant. It may tell you the colour. For example: coccinea= red, lutea = yellow etc. It may describe the leaves or the petals or the form of the plant. E.G. foetida = stinky, horridus = bristly, (not horrid). It may tell you where the plant grows and that is useful to know. For instance; palustris= marshy, arvensis= in the fields.
Maybe the specific epithet tells you where the plant comes from. But you have to be careful here. Scilla peruviana comes from the Mediterranean, not Peru. The name of the ship that brought it to the UK was called The Peru. Sometimes the name commemorates the name of the person who found it, or the discoverer names it in someone else’s honour. It is considered bad form to name a plant after yourself.
There is a great little book which is very helpful when you are trying to learn Latin names. Plant Names Simplified. Their Pronunciation Derivation and Meaning by A T Johnson and H. A. Smith. I love this book and refer to it all the time. Obviously if you never learnt Latin it is a bit of a challenge coming to grips with the fact that nouns can be masculine, feminine or neuter and the ending of the specific epithet must agree with the genus. We used to be able to buy a plant called Polygonum bistorta ‘Superbum’, and what a delight to those of us with a childish sense of humour to have a plant with a super bum. The name of the genus was changed to Persicaria and so unfortunately the plant became Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’. What a pity, it has nothing to do with bums at all. But never fear we still have a silly bum. For the time being at least.
Last week Christina at Myhesperidesgarden and Wellywoman discussed the problem of constantly changing plant names and what we should do about it. Christina suggested that we should have a debate. Do we give up on the Latin and use common names for plants? Do we just ignore changes and stick with the names we have learnt so painstakingly? After all they are called synonyms. Unfortunately in botanical terms a synonym is not interchangeable with the current correct name.
Let’ s look at common names first. But how common are they? Where I grew up the local name for Caltha palustris was May Blobs. When I came to live in Suffolk nobody knew what I was talking about if I mentioned May Blobs. You may call the flower Marsh Marigold or King Cups. Or you may call it something else because there are 31 different local names for the plant. So really, pretty as it may be, a vernacular name is useless for discussing plants.
I have noticed that American bloggers are very keen on vernacular names for flowers and I have to say that if they don’ t give the Latin name too, I have no idea what they are talking about and I don’ t suppose anyone in the UK does. The names may be pretty but they are unknown here and I don’ t want to waste brain space on learning them. We have a perfectly good botanical name for them which everyone understands. The case is made worse by the fact that there are many, many so- called lilies which aren’ t lilies at all. And what about harebells and black-eyed susies? There are quite a few totally unrelated plants masquerading under these names. Some nurseries add to the confusion by making up nice sounding names for plants which they think will sell better if they don’ t have those horrid Latin names to put people off. I really believe that if you are interested enough in plants to write a blog you should be nerdy enough to learn to use the grown up names so that we all know what you are talking about. After all nobody finds Rhododendron, Penstemon, Forsythia difficult. People use the name Geranium quite happily ( and very often blithely ignoring the fact that this word hasn’ t been used to describe the Pelargonium since 1738.) Probably the same people insist on calling the Hippeastrum an Amaryllis. Still at least they are using the Latin. Let’s just have a quick look at the difference between these constantly confused plants.
But I guess the real problem in confusion in plant names is the ever increasing number of plants which are being reclassified. It is wearying for us all, expensive for nurseries and quickly puts books out of date.
There is an International Code of Botanical Nomenclature and there are rules which is a good thing because it does help to avoid confusion. For instance no plant is allowed more than one name. If in the past more than one name has been assigned to a plant then the first name is the correct one. Another rule which I think is a bit of a spoilsport is that tautology (tautonyms) is not allowed. In zoology ‘ Bufa bufa’ is a toad. The correct name for a gorilla is ‘ Gorilla gorilla’. The one I particularly like is the former name for the European Chaffinch which was Chloris chloris. Sadly this has now been changed to Carduelis chloris. None of these tautonyms are allowed in the plant world. The nearest was Ziziphus zizyphus ( a sort of date) which wasn’ t quite a tautonym but even this was changed to Ziziphus jujuba. We still do have Salacca zalaca though which is a kind of palm. Perhaps nobody has noticed that it is almost a tautology.
The most usual reason for plants being reclassified is the fact that we now have DNA testing which reveals the relationships between plants far more efficiently than just looking at them ever did. The new model is called cladistics. Basically this means that there is only one line of parentage for every species and you cannot have two species in the same genus which are not related. Of course this has led to a great shake up of the plant world and a lot of reorganisation. It is unfortunate, but it is inevitable really. It is not the result of sudden capricious whims of taxonomists, it is really necessary to sort things out in the light of new understanding. For example the huge family of Aster has been split up because it was discovered that American asters were not related in any way to the ones elsewhere in the world. The Chrysanthemum family was split up but garden growers were allowed to keep the name for their showy perennials.
When it was discovered that Australian wattles were not related to ones anywhere else in the world they were allowed to keep the name Acacia and the ones in other parts of the world had to change.
Of course there is often disagreement in the way that plants are classified. Taxonomists are divided between the ‘ lumpers’ and the ‘splitters’. But this has been the case since the time of Darwin. The most frustrating thing is when a plant is changed as when Veronica became a Hebe in the 1929 and then after DNA analysis it recently became a Veronica again.
It is difficult for us to keep up because these changes have traditionally only been reported in peer- reviewed scientific journals which we probably don’ t have access to. Things have changed though because new plants no longer have to be described in Latin and they can be published on line.
I think as bloggers we have the great advantage that we can keep each other up to date and indeed this is what we do. We talk about plants and with much grumbling we take on board the new names. I have learnt about Symphiotrichum from fellow bloggers this year and I am sure as more plants get reassigned we will manage to keep abreast. Let’ s look upon it as a challenge.
Here are a couple more plants with new names that I am gradually getting to grips with. The lovely Cimicifuga simplex ‘Atropurpurea’ has become Actaea simplex ‘Atropurpurea’ . The good news is that when the genus changes the name usually keeps its specific epithet.
The tall Sedums have been renamed Hylotelphium after a study at Tokyo University realised that they should not be classified in the same family as creeping stonecrops. Hang on though, I think this change is still being thrashed out.
I will finish with a poem that I like by Robert Frost. I have noticed that the bottom of my garden which has been an orchard for hundreds of years is riddled with honey fungus, Armillaria mellea. The apple and plum trees are particularly vulnerable but so are roses. Surprisingly they all belong to the Rosacae family.
The Rose Family.
The rose is a rose
And was always a rose
But now the theory goes
That the apple’ s a rose
And the pear is and so’ s
The plum I suppose.
Dear only knows
What will next prove a rose
You of course are a rose…
But were always a rose. Robert Frost.
I would love to hear your opinion about plant taxonomy, please join in with the debate. I see that Christina has posted about this subject today I am going over to see what she has to say now. Please have a look and watch out for Wellywoman’s contribution. And do join in. This concerns us all.