Clearing Up Plant Names

Six years ago, I posted an article about scientific names for plants. As I pointed out, scientific names are essential because there are often a multitude of common names for a single species, or the same common name for a multitude of species. Using the genus species clarifies exactly which plant you’re discussing.

However, when it came to botany, even the scientific names weren’t always helpful. In fact, plant taxonomy was a disordered mess! I included this excerpt from The Guardian:

More than 600,000 plant species have been deleted from the dictionary of life after the most comprehensive assessment carried out by scientists.

For centuries, botanists from different parts of the world have been collecting and naming “new” plants without realising that many were in fact the same. The humble tomato boasts 790 different names, for example, while there are 600 different monikers for the oak tree and its varieties.

The result was a list of more than 1 million flowering plant species. Although experts have long known that it included many duplicates, no one was sure how many. Later this year, the study team, led by UK and US scientists, will announce that the real number of flowering plant species around the world is closer to 400,000.

This effort involved both DNA sequencing and research into hundreds of years of obscure research, and progress has been made. However, even this effort has now been eclipsed by a new list, the Leipzig Catalog of Vascular Plants (LCVP). Just published by Leipzig University and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research , and ten years in the making, this is now the most accurate and complete list of vascular plants we have. Duplicate names have been resolved, and around 181,000 previously ambiguous names have been clarified.

The authors “… provide an updated and much improved reference list of 1,315,562 scientific names for all described vascular plant species globally. The Leipzig Catalogue of Vascular Plants … contains 351,180 accepted species names (plus 6,160 natural hybrids), within 13,460 genera, 564 families and 84 orders.”

This list is intended to replace The Plant List that was developed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Missouri Botanical Garden. Until now, The Plant List has been the most authoritative resource on the taxonomy of vascular plants (flowering plants, conifers, ferns and their allies) and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts).

As a birder, I’ve often appreciated the effort that goes into the various bird species lists. Having standardized names (for the most part) means that we’re all working from the same understanding. If I say I’ve seen an American Robin, for example, we all know I mean Turdus turdus (right), not to be confused with the European Robin, Erithacus rubecula (left), a completely different species in a different family.

Creating a comprehensive, standardized list will facilitate botanical research, as botanists will have the assurance that the plant they have in mind is the same species as the one another researcher mentions.

For example, I’m growing a lovely, xeric plant with red flowers that attracts hummingbirds. It has thrived in our front yard, and now I want some more plants to add to the back. However, the challenge is figuring out what to call it.

I could use the scientific name, but even then there’s the potential for a mix-up. Originally the plant was placed in its own genus, Zauschneria, in honor of Johann Baptista Josef Zauschner, a Polish botanist. More recently the plant was moved to the genus Epilobium. Even though the current name is Epilobium canum, some people never got the message; many labels still read Zauschneria cana.

Perhaps I could just use the common name—but which one? Known as Hummingbird Trumpet, Hummingbird Flower, Firechalice, California Fuchsia, and Zauschneria, I find I have to go through the much of the list before nursery workers stop looking confused and lead me to the appropriate display. Then there are the subspecies. I prefer ‘Garrett’s Orange’ (E. canum ssp. garrettii) as it appears to be a bit hardier—but it’s also known as ‘Orange Carpet,’ ‘Garrett’s Firechalice,’ and ‘Garrett’s California Fuchsia’!

It’s my hope that, as newly standardized names filter down into common usage, landscapers, garden centers, and passionate gardeners will be all be on the same page, confident that the plant we receive is the one we think we are purchasing.

European Robin photo:, via Wikimedia Commons

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