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Plant Names

 

The following sections, "Scientific Nomenclature" and "Common Names",
examines the two major historical orientations for naming plants. This
information, while specifically pertaining to plants, is also applicable to
animals and to other categories of living organisms. While details may
vary somewhat, the general principles discussed below are also relevant
to the animal section of the Nature Guide.

 

Scientific Nomenclature

 

The process of naming plants has had three distinct historical orientations:
1) scientific, 2) traditional, and 3) commercial (of these three, only the
scientific and traditional are included in the Inventory). The scientific
orientation is based on the system created by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, and
incorporated within the articles of the current International Code of Bo-

tanical Nomenclature. The scientific orientation is very narrow in scope,
limited in use to a highly educated, select group of professionals (e.g.,
botanists, biologists, etc.). Because it uses a complex set of prescribed
rules for naming plants, the scientific orientation is often mistakenly
assumed to the only “legitimate” orientation. However, as examined
below, this presumed “legitimacy” has a definite, albeit limited, range

of applicability.

 

The assignment of names to plants following standardized rules is called
nomenclature. Nomenclature is one of three fundamental aspects of plant
systematics, the other two aspects being identification and classification.
Nomenclature, identification, and classification should not be delineated
into three independent categories, but, rather, should be viewed as three
integrated activities in which modifications made in any one will have
repercussions for the other two.

 

The primary objective of scientific nomenclature is to provide a single

Latin (or, beginning in 2012, English) name for every known species of

plant, both extant and fossil. The process of assigning a name to a species involves three distinct functions: 1) to select a generic first word based on presumed classification of the species within Kingdom Plantae; 2) to select

a specific epithet second word or words; and 3) to note the author of the

generic and specific epithet words. In addition, if any previously employed scientific names have been used, this must be considered when naming a

species. This is generally not a problem for newly discovered plants, but

may be a significant problem when reclassifying a species into another

genus or family. The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature pro-

vides extensive rules governing issues associated with the retention, choice,

and rejection of scientific names.

 

Scientific nomenclature has not proved to be as effective as originally
presumed, although it is a substantial improvement over traditional com-

mon names. While some misidentifications have contributed to this prob-

lem, reclassification of plant genera and individual species, subspecies
and varieties has been the primary cause of many species having one or
more previously employed scientific names (i.e., synonyms). For example,
in Vascular Plants of Texas, Jones, Wipff, and Montgomery list one spec-

ies of goldeye as Viguiera longifolia while Kartesz lists the same species

within Genus Heliomeris, listing it as Holiomeris longifolia var. longi-

folia. There has also been a lack of unanimity among botanists as to re-

classifications, often leading some publications to use different scientific

names for the same species. Reclassification issues and nomenclature prob-

lems are included in the "Taxonomy" portion of each species listing.

 

Common Names

 

The common (also called traditional or colloquial) orientation is based on
the application of names to plants by American Indian cultures and early
European settlers to North America. Unlike the scientific orientation, the
common orientation is very broad in scope, encompassing all aspects of
human intellectual functions and behavior (e.g., psychological, artistic,
religious, philosophical, and economic). Thousands of delightfully descrip-
tive and confusing common names, following no rules whatsoever, have
been assigned plants; these names have provided an inexhaustible wealth
of material for writers and artists, as well as for the individual who enjoys a
casual walk in a garden or a scenic ride through Sky Meadows State Park.

 

If scientific nomenclature poses some problems, traditional common names
pose far more difficulties. For example, Chrysanthemum leucanthemum C.
Linnaeus (previously classified as Leucanthemum vulgare J. de Lamarck)
is often referred to as the oxeye daisy (or ox-eye daisy), a plant and name
familiar to many Virginians. But the oxeye daisy is also referred to as blue
daisy, field daisy, and at least ten other names. Which of the thirteen com-
mon names used for Chrysanthemum leucanthemum should be the
“official” common name? Should botanists choose one of the traditional
names to the exclusion of other common names? This example, multiplied
by hundreds, or even thousands, of times gives one indication of the prob-
lem encountered by anyone who identifies and works with plants using
common names. Many plant species have several common names while
hundreds of other plant species have no traditionally recognized names (or
did have common names but the names have subsequently been “lost” with
changes in linguistic usage). Not only individual plant species, but plant
genera and families also have similar problems. This problem is often
compounded by the fact that many plants have traditional names in two
or more languages (i.e., English, French, Spanish, and American Indian
tribal). For example, English speaking Virginians will usually refer to spe-

cies of the Toxicodendron genus as some form of poison ivy or poison oak,

while Spanish speaking Texans may refer to the same Toxicodendron gen-

us as hiedra. In addition, many common plant names follow no consistent

rules concerning capitalization, compounding, plural use, or even spelling.

As indicated above, both oxeye daisy and ox-eye daisy are acceptable.

 

As stated previously, the scientific orientation provides for the assignment
of names to plants following standardized rules (as designated in the Inter-
national Code of Botanical Nomenclature). Subsequently, scientific nomen-
clature is characterized by: 1) precision of terminology; 2) uniformity of
spelling; 3) consistency in grammatical requirements; 4) definitiveness in
taxonomic rank; and 5) universality in applicability (although disagreements
may exist).

 

The traditional common names orientation is the antithesis of the scientific.
The common names orientation has no standardized rules and there is no
international organization that meets periodically to formulate rules and
recommendations such as the International Code of Botanical Nomencla-

ture. Common names are characterized by: 1) imprecision of terminology;

2) lack of uniformity in spelling; 3) inconsistency in grammatical require-

ments; 4) indefinite taxonomic rank; and 5) lack of universality in applic-

ability. Because of these deficient characteristics, there has been a general

movement away from incorporating common names within botanical publications. For example, one standard reference work, Vascular Plants

of Texas by Jones, Wipff, and Montgomery, does not include common

names.

 

Given the problems associated with common names, is there any reason-

able justification for using them in the Nature Guide? The answer to this

question depends upon the purpose which the names are to be used. For

scientific purposes the answer is definitely “no” - common names are not adequate for the needs of scientific analysis and communication. This

response, however, must be placed within a larger intellectual context,

and important social and psychological issues need to be examined before

a definitive answer is reached.

 

By employing scientific procedures (even before any formal “scientific”
procedures existed), mankind learned how to derive immense benefits
from plant life. Food, medicine, fabrics, and construction materials have
all been developed from plants. Because scientific research has provided
so many useful products from plants, it is often overlooked that plants
provide other benefits totally removed from current scientific inquiry.
Whether it is a philodendron hanging in a dentist's office (to create a
“friendlier” environment) or thousands of spectators viewing the annual
Japanese cherry blossoms on an April day in Washington, D. C., man's
relationship to plants is as much psychological as it is scientific or utilitar-

ian. The pleasure derived from observing the panoramic cavalcade of reds

and yellows of sweetgum trees or sugar maples on a cool October morning

is an artistic benefit, while lilies placed on the grave of a loved one has

deep religious significance. Observing the myriad benefits an old dead

white oak has to other plants and animals can engender profound philos-

ophical thoughts. These psychological, artistic, religious, and philosoph-

ical dimensions to man's relationship to plants has never been adequately
studied or understood, even though their significance has been apparent
for thousands of years.

 

If man has more than one type of relationship to plants, then it is reason-
able that he may need more than one form of communication to express
himself about plants. The scientific nomenclature has shown to have clear
advantages when a scientific, utilitarian relationship is developed; however,
there is no intrinsic rationale to assume that the same scientific nomen-
clature has comparable advantages when a psychological, philosophical,
religious, or artistic relationship exists. Excellent examples of all these
non-scientific dimensions is provided by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in
“Chapter 3 - The Magnolia Tree” from her book Cross Creek. Rawlings
writes of her intense psychological reaction to “a tree-top against a patch
of sky” - a reaction characterized as “an irreducible minimum of happiness
. . .” She goes on to write,

 

                      “The tree was a magnolia, taller than the
                       tallest orange trees around it. There is no such
                       thing in the world as an ugly tree, but the
                       Magnolia grandiflora has a unique perfection . . .
                       it develops with complete symmetry, so that one
                       wonders whether character in all things, human
                       as well as vegetable, may not be implicit.”

 

Rawling's reaction to Magnolia grandiflora is in terms radically different
than the technical description a scientific orientation would take. Her
paragraph includes philosophical as well as psychological dimensions.
Regardless of the relationship Rawling's develops, emphasis throughout
Cross Creek is on using common plant names for: 1) referential placement
in time and space, 2) emotional tone; and 3) symbolism.

 

The very characteristics of common names that make them unsuitable for
scientific nomenclature are the same characteristics that often make them
preferable for examining and expressing other types of relationships. Pre-

cision of terminology is not necessarily an effective approach for an au-

thor who wants to develop emotional tone or symbolism. Very often a
broad connotative interpretation of terminology will achieve an author's
intentions far more effectively than scientific precision and specificity. A
poet or novelist has a rich symbolic imagery to work with when describing
a devil's head (Echinocactus horizonthalonius, a barrel cacti of the Amer-

ican southwest) or angel trumpets (Acleisanthes longiflora). Literary critics

often use the terms “evocative”or “suggestive” in a complimentary manner

when evaluating the quality of an author's work; such terms would hardly

be deemed complimentary using a scientific orientation employing a tech-

nical nomenclature.

 

 

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