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.


All in the Family

karin, leslie and willow_everett-wa_lah_3765Did you know that plants come in families?

You may remember learning taxonomy in your high school biology class. Way back when, I taught my classes of 15-year-olds the seven levels of classification: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. (Since that time, scientists have been busy, and we now have domains, which precede kingdoms.) All these can have super- and sub- added to their names, as well. If you’re talking about plants, “phylum” is replaced by “division” and “order” is sometimes replaced by “series,” just to keep things as confusing as possible. (more…)

Checklist Changes

Yellow-rumped Warbler- Myrtle's_Patagonia-AZ_LAH_3751Many serious birders keep a life list of the bird species they’ve seen. We can tell you exactly how many birds are on that list, and there’s great excitement when we can add a new “lifer.” We may also have a list of “target birds,” those not yet seen, and we often spend considerable effort tracking them down. But once a year, we have an opportunity to add a new bird or two without lifting a finger.

All year, ornithologists are busy debating bird taxonomy. They present evidence—behavioral, morphological, a new DNA analysis, etc.—to support their opinions as to which species need to be split into two, which need to be lumped together as one (perhaps as subspecies), which need to be moved to a different genus, and other taxonomic changes. Every July, the AOS (American Ornithological Society) publishes the agreed-upon changes, and we all scramble to update our life lists.


A Plant by Any Other Name…

Blue Columbine - Aquilegia caeruleaHow do you pronounce Gomphocarpus physocarpus? What is it? And how can we ever remember how to spell it? What’s Aquilegia caerulea? You might know it as Colorado’s native Blue Columbine (right). Or how about Symphyotrichum novae-angliae? Isn’t it simpler just to say New England Aster? Scientific names are enough to drive gardeners crazy, so why in the world do we need to bother with them?

Scientific names, also called Latin names, can be annoying, but they serve a valuable purpose. We owe a huge thank you to Carl von Linné, the Swedish biologist who, back in the 1700s, invented what we now call binomial nomenclature. He also had the bright idea to use Latin, or at least to Latinize the words from another language, in order to avoid giving preference to any nationality. Scientists all around the world use the same Latin name to designate a particular species.