Shakespeare, when trying to get Juliet to convince Romeo that she loves him and not the Montague family, spouted “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In other words, whether you’re William, Will, Bill, Billy or Bubba doesn’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things.
Mr. Shakespeare was quite a prophet when it comes to plant names.
There is nothing more frustrating for horticulturists than to get to know a plant by one name, and find out someone somewhere has determined scientifically that it should be called something else.
Don’t get excited. Tomatoes are still tomatoes and apples are still apples. Sure, some know it as witloof chicory while others know it as Belgian endive, but they are still the same and no one really cares.
Common names will always prevail, and always be frustrating as what’s known by one name in the Midwest is something else in Florida or Oregon.
That’s where the scientific names came in. Each plant had one name and one name only. No other plant had that name. Names were universal, which meant if you said Acer rubrum in Illinois, Argentina, Bora Bora, Tokyo, Moscow or Venice, you should end up with the same plant, though the pronunciation might be a trifle off.
That was all well and good for 200+ years. It was essentially first-come first-named, though there were rules for naming plants that the professional plant namers followed. These nomenclature rules were a fairly common sense approach based on the flower structure initially, and then other physical characteristics.
It’s what created plant families. It’s what put roses with peaches, apples, hawthorns, Spirea, strawberries, cherries, pears, Potentilla, cotoneaster and pearl bush in the same group. It’s what put orchids together. Grasses together. Beech, oak and chestnut together.
It’s a literal CSI world now. DNA testing has changed the scientific name, splitting up some families and essentially wiping out others. Plants that belonged to “A” are now in “B”, and no longer related to “C” like everyone thought.
Just moving plants from one family to another wouldn’t be as problematic as changing their names, since “A” seems more related to “D” than it ever was with “B” or “C”, so to be scientifically logical, we must now put “A” and “D” together.
For the average gardener, you probably don’t care. And rightly so. If you still call it tomato, it’s the same thing.
If you collect gardening books, and want to be absolute in your garden, these changes drive you buggy. Names change and families change from one volume to the next revised issue. Some authors don’t care. Others are fanatical.
What may seem like a new plant to you is the same wrapped with a new name and nothing else.
The good news is that plants don’t read and if you call a coleus a “Coleus”, “Solenostemon” or “Plectranthus”, or a tomato a “Lycopersicon” or “Solanum”, it still won’t answer you. Much like a teenager.
Clearing up the jungle of plant names
In an attempt to clear up and cut through the jumble of taxonomic plant names, botanists in Britain unleashed a database of 1.25 million plant names you can access at www.theplantlist.org. The idea wasn’t to clear up the confusing plant naming conundrum, but to give a clear picture of the plant biodiversity of our planet and to help preserve species under threat. This working list provides a basic checklist of what plants are on the planet.
The longest name in the list is Ornithogalum adseptentrionesvergentulum and could be a great tiebreaker in a spelling contest. As a working list, only 300,000 names for species have been accepted as standard terms by the experts. And 480,000 other names are described as synonyms and alternatives for accepted names. New plants are being discovered all the time and need to be named. What’s really sad is one in five of the world’s known plant species is under threat of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Resources for identifying plants
The USDA has created a site that can help you identify plants. Go to www.nal.usda.gov/learn-identify-plants. Some resources present “keys” while others present photographs for visual matching. “Keys” offer you two choices based on a plant’s characteristics. For example, a tree key might ask whether the leaves are alternate or opposite, and if edges are smooth or serrated, etc., until a final decision about the plant’s identity can be determined.
Links to printed field guides, other websites and apps are available from the USDA site. Field guides may also present keys, illustrations or both, generally covers a certain geographic area, and may be the handiest identification aides.
David Robson is Extension Specialist, Pesticide Safety for the University of Illinois. firstname.lastname@example.org