Sunday, December 23, 2018

Plant Names and Families

Indian temple tree (Plumeria, dogbane family, Apocynaceae)
Some of my earliest blogs (spring, 2013) were about botanical classification because I wanted to explain why I used it.

I recently settled down to read a technical book on ecology and found the references (Somebody 2002, Somebodyelse and Coauthor 2011) distracting. Annoying, actually. There was a time when I read over those without a thought.

I elected from the beginning to include references in this blog, but only at the end. But I do stick in technical plant name information (Fancylatin name, twig family, Fancylatinaceae), every time I mention a plant. I am not about to give that up, intrusive as it is. So perhaps I should explain again.

Argemone polyanthemos
prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos, poppy family, Papaveraceae)
The scientific community tried, starting in the 1700s, to facilitate communication by creating one unique name for each plant species. That is the "Latin name" or "scientific name." It is italicized, because it is treated as if was written in Latin. In English, the rule is that foreign words appearing in English text are italicized, c'est la vie, for example. The scientific name for a species always has the two parts, the genus and the specific epithet. The genus is always capitalized, while the species epithet is never capitalized. Rosa arkansana, Arkansas rose, Populus tremuloides, quaking aspen.) (Note: these words have odd plurals: one species two species; one genus two genera).
reedmace (Typha, bulrush family, Typhaceae) 
I have chosen to generally use common names in this blog. But common names are vernacular names, the names local people use. Some of my choices will mean nothing to people from other regions. I say Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) but it is also called bodark. I say cattail, the British say reedmace, for the same plant, Typha latifolia. If I include the scientific name, you can google it and see if you know it by a different common name.

For other plants there is confusion because two or more plants have the same common name. For example, hemlock: there is a tree (Tsuga canadensis) and a tall herb (Conium maculatum). And there are two marigolds, Calendula and Tagetes. Scientific names clarify all that.
marigold (Calendula officinalis, sunflower family Asteraceae)
marigold (Tagetes erecta, sunflower family, Asteraceae)
And those plant families...The problem for all people who work on plants is that there are some 390,000 species, too many for any person to know. There are tens of thousands of genera, the next level of organization. All those genera are grouped into 452 vascular plant families, a nearly manageable number.

The idea is that if you know the characteristics of a family it gives you a frame of reference. Even if you never thought about similarities or differences between plants, if I say "it is in the tomato family, Solanaceae," then you think of tomato plants, not palm trees or cacti which are members of other families. Since plants in the same species can interbreed and those in the same genus share many characteristics, and the genera within a family are more closely related to each other than to any other genus, this works.
genus and species unknown, cactus family, Cactaceae
The family is the common point of reference for botanists. Not generally for zoologists, by the way. Botanists from Europe will likely know the plant families I write about but maybe not the species. Naming the family helps.
genus and species unknown, sunflower (and thistle) family Asteraceae
Technical note: all higher plant families end in -ceae. They are capitalized and not italicized. Similar-looking weird words ending in -ales are  plant orders: families are grouped into orders. The ending
-ideae designates subfamilies. And there are others. But -ceae is the important one in botany: Poaceae the grass family, Orchidaceae the orchid family, Cactaceae the cactus family, etc. and 449 more. (Family names are not very pronunceable, in my accent it is see-ee; so Po ay see ee.)

That is the explanation for those intrusive technical terms: an attempt at clarity. Run your eye past them unless you are trying to look up the plant, then they should be helpful.

Comments and corrections welcome.

For more detailed posts on botanical conventions:
Botany Rules series in this blog: Common Names; Scientific Names; Plant Family; Who Makes the Rules?; Allowing English Descriptions; Acacia Issues; Why Change Plant Names 1 ; Why Change Plant Names 2;  Why Some Plants Have 2 Scientific Names

You can download those as a single unit from my website. link

More on the examples
The two hemlocks link
The two marigolds link 
Osage orange link

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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