What is your name? – Plant taxonomy

What is your name? You get an immediate response out of a crowd whenever calling somebody’s name. We establish connections and start bonding with each other by our names. However, plants can never respond by calling their names. But still, plants are meaningful to us, such as rose is love, lotus is enlightenment, tea is refreshment, rice is fertility. We learn the names of Plants through books, friends, and the attached “name tags’ from supermarkets or nurseries. Most of these names are common names that are regional and culturally associated. Some common names are interchangeable according to the culture, regions, and languages. For example, the common name cedar. It is referred to as quite unrelated trees in Asia, North America, South Africa, and Australia. Besides, many plants can have more than one common name even in one language, not to mention the common names that the same plant may have in different languages of the world. Heavenly bamboo is not bamboo,  but an evergreen plant that produces bright red berries. Furthermore, a large proportion of the plants in the world have never received a common name, on account of being too rare, hard to distinguish, or found only in a wilderness area. Therefore, the scientific name is the standard to identify a species regardless of the culture, regions, as well as languages.

The scientific name of the species is named using Latin although they are not familiar to every gardener. The reason that scientific names are in Latin is that, when the systematic description of plants began to receive attention in the Renaissance period, the common language of European scholarship was Latin. However, the names of the plants were clumsy Latin phrases in the next two or three centuries, which might be translated as, for instance, “Oak with lobed leaves and long-stalked nuts. Its bark used for tanning”. Subsequently, the famous Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) first hit on the idea of identifying each plant by only two names. He first shows the differentiating names merely as marginal annotations beside the longer phrase-names of the text in his book named Species Plantarum. However, it was not long before the convenience of this system was appreciated and these names were coupled with the genus names to give the Latin two-word names we now use, which known as binomial nomenclature.

Binomial nomenclature follows a similar principle to the names of the people, like a surname and given name reversed. For instance, Quercus alba and Quercus rubra are both members of the “family” of Quercus, in the same way, that Elizabeth Mann and Manfred Mann are both members of the family Mann. Interestingly, the parallel of the botanical nomenclature can be extended in such a way that the second part of the name, for instance, rubra, can be the ‘given’ name in unrelated ‘families’. Therefore, there is an Ulmus rubra and a Morus rubra as well as Quercus rubra. The botanical nomenclature is a simple system in which the first name is the genus name, which is unique and can stand on its own. For example, Quercus is the genus of oaks and no other plant genus can share the same name. Each genus may consist of several or many species (sometimes only one species), each designated by a two-part name as just described. Therefore, the name of the white oak species is Quercus alba, not just alba as the latter word being referred to by botanists as the ‘specific epithet’.

There are several standard ways of using botanical names:
∙Scientific names are often distinguished by using italic or underlined in written form.
∙The genus name is usually abbreviated to its initial letter when additional species are itemized. For instance, Q. rubra.

However, the above-mentioned were not the most vital contribution by Linnaeus in using binomials. Linnaeus had put forward a comprehensive system of the classification of plants and animals equipped with a full hierarchy of the names from the kingdom at the top to the species at the bottom. Almost every plant could be allotted a place in his system, which including the wealth of new species that are recently discovered in the Americans and tropical Asia. Linnaeus’ classification was based on the flower and in particular its organs of fertilization, the stamens, as well as pistil. This revolutionary ‘sexual system’ used the respective numbers of stamens and pistils to place plants in a series of classes and subclasses. For instance, a flowering plant that has five stamens and three pistils would be Pentandria trigyna in Linnaeus’ system. The benefit of having Linnaeus nomenclature is that all plants could be reliably pigeon-holed. On the other hand, the disadvantage of having the system is that there are many species, which are closely allied were placed in different classes simply based on an extra stamen.

Subsequently, Linnaeus had begun to place species and genera in ‘natural orders’, which is known as plant families that defined based on a wider range of characters of flowers, fruits, and foliage. The family names had finally stabilized by the late nineteenth century, which is the form we now use that uses the names of the genus that typifies the family but with the ending -aceae. Therefore, the genus name of the rose is called Rosa, and the family is Rosaceae. Family, genus, and species are the only best-known levels in the whole hierarchy of botanical names, which runs in descending order from kingdom, phylum or division, class, order, family, subfamily, tribe, genus, section, species, subspecies, and cultivars or varieties. A family may consist of one genus or many genera, whereas a genus may contain a single species or more than one thousand species.

Under the International Code for Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), botanists are quite free to choose either classification that governs the correct use of names once a classification has been chosen that determined on rather legalistic grounds according to the rules-based on the priority of publication. Linnaeus listed varieties (varietas) after some of the species in his book, Species Plantarum in the levels of classification below the rank of species by indicating them with the Greek letters α, β, and so on. However, in the mid-twentieth century, there was an evolution in the nomenclature system as many botanists moved to use subspecies in the same way as zoologists. For example, a species is divided into two or more subspecies, often regarded as species still in the process of evolving, with each subspecies usually having its geographical range.

Variant forms of species that have been created or perpetuated by gardeners are now named as cultivars rather than varieties and must now be given names in modern languages, not Latin. We are all familiar with cultivar names such as those of roses and camellias, names in this style has been in use for over one hundred and fifty years. A cultivar name is always in a different typeface from the botanical name and has an initial capital letter. Moreover, they are also usually in single quotes, though an alternative is to prefix them with the abbreviations cv. If you notice that some cultivar names are attached to a species name while for others only the genus is mentioned. The latter is practiced for many plants of hybrid origins. Particularly where more than two species are involved in the parentage, or for those cases where the species cannot readily be identified.

Cultivars of the trees and shrubs are normally assumed to be single clones that are an individual plant. A particular hybrid crossing may produce many seedlings with differing combinations of the parental characters. Therefore, breeders select the best seedlings and perpetuate them as clones, naming them commercially promising ones as cultivars. The world starts to use the same system of plant nomenclature and follow its conventions because of botanists. Plants from all parts of the world can be identified and described without confusion. There are about three hundred thousand species of flowering plants, cycads, and ferns as well as allies in the world. The development of a simple system by which they can all be names and enumerated has been a triumph of human ability and cooperation.

Over the years, there has been a substantial increase in the types of plants grown locally or imported from other countries. At the same time, we are witnessing a positive trend towards greater interest in the planting of the plants, cherish the modern green, and conserve our biological diversity with a heightened environmental awareness and appreciation of our natural heritage. Gardeners and hobbyists who know the names of the plants able to relate the species to each other which can help in understanding the growth conditions. With the technology, many smartphone applications are developed that used to identify the plant species with a list of suggested scientific and common names of similar morphology that may match with the plant.

Linnaeus is undoubtedly a great botanist that came out of the botanical nomenclature system that is still applicable nowadays. However, there are slightly more than one-third of a million species of plants known to humans today, although the information having been accumulated through efforts of several millenniums. Therefore, botanical subjects like taxonomy and systematics are introduced. Botanical taxonomy is a combination of Greek words, whereby taxis means arrangement while nomos means the rules or laws. For a long time, plant taxonomy was considered the science of identifying, naming, and classifying plants. In the latter half of the twentieth century, systematics was recognized as a major formal field of study. It is derived from the Latin word system that means organized whole, thus forming the title of the famous works of Linnaeus Systema Naturae.

Further reading:

Cheers, G. (2016). Botanica: the illustrated AZ of over 10,000 garden plants and how to cultivate them. HF Ullmann

Simpson, M. G. (2019). Plant systematics. Academic press

Leave a Reply