Stephen RyanCoping with plant name changes (or not)

People have long complained about botanical plant names, that they are too hard to say, spell and remember. You all know all these excuses and have probably used them! But this isn’t the reason I am tapping away on my computer as I have long accepted the need for them and have even learnt to use quite a few! It is about the frightening amount of name changes that we are being confronted with.

Linnaeus1758-title-pageI well remember when I was a student studying plant nomenclature and my old tutor saying how important the Latin names were as they gave stability.

If he were alive today would I give him a mouthful!

Name changes used to be rare and usually after much research, and most commonly due to the law of precedence, which states: the first correctly published name should be used.

What would happen is that some little known botanist from some non Western institute (say for instance in Azerbaijan) gave a plant a name and published it in a local journal with little distribution and most of the text in Azerbaijanian, although the plant description had to be in Latin, and this would then sit collecting dust whilst a Kew botanist some years later gives the same plant a new name.

Once the original manuscript came to light the name is then changed even if the newer name is well entrenched in horticulture, much to the annoyance of the gardening public and the nursery industry. Especially if it is commemorative of an Azerbaijainian botanist with no vowels in his name! By the way I have nothing against this or any other country that feels the need to name plants.

The reason that we are now in an era of such remarkable change is more to do with modern technology as we can now study genes and chromosomes so that many plants that for years were thought to be closely related have been found not to be and conversely many that were thought distantly related have also found not to be.

One has to hope that at sometime in the future all of this will come to an end but it probably won’t, as you also need to take into account the lumpers and the splitters. After all plant naming is for our benefit and not the plants, they don’t seem to find it necessary to sit neatly into little boxes.

Acacia mellifera

Acacia mellifera

One of the most interesting and controversial recent examples of name changing became something of a botanical bun fight when it was realised that the Australian Acacia were in fact not closely related to those of other parts of the world.

By the laws of precedence the Australian ones should have been taken out of the Genus as the African ones had the name first. We first world Aussies argued for an exception due to the iconic status of the Australian ones and that we had so many species that would of needed name changes and won!

African Vachellia erioloba, formerly Acacia erioloba Photo Winfried Bruenken

African Vachellia erioloba, formerly Acacia erioloba Photo Winfried Bruenken

The rest of the world would seem not to be happy about this obvious flouting of the laws if the South African horticultural media is to be believed and I take it that the fight is any thing but over.

And who thought gardening was a gentle sport?

I recently heard that the Genus Hebe could well be sunk back into the old world Genus of Veronica as the only difference between the two is the woody nature of the Hebe, I wonder if it will turn into a yet another interesting fight or will the Kiwis just roll over?

The only really annoying thing about these name changes for me is that for a long time I only found out about them by accident, usually when some smarty pants pointed out that the name was changed years ago.

Fessia greilhuberi

Fessia greilhuberi

It was only this spring for instance when I was about to put a post on my website about a plant I had long known as Scilla greilhuberi and I decided that I should check its natural habitat that the waters started to muddy. I found reference to it now being in the Genus Fessia.

Although nothing is perfect I was told about the Kew website The Plant List and now use it regularly to check that I am as up to date as I can be and at least I will have one of the worlds great institutions to back me up in the case of an argument with a plant geek customer!

What a mouthful - Lilium leichlinii var maximowiczii

What a mouthful – Lilium leichlinii var maximowiczii

And if all this isn’t enough have any of you thought to see what is happening at the plant family level lately? Just check out what has happened to the old family of Liliaceae and you will see what I mean.

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Stephen Ryan

About Stephen Ryan

Stephen Ryan grew up and still lives at Mt. Macedon in Victoria where he has run his nursery Dicksonia Rare Plants since 1980. He was for 3 years host of Gardening Australia on ABC TV and is a regular on Melbourne’s 3CR. Sunday garden program. He has written 4 books and innumerable articles for magazines both in Australia and abroad and is also a sought-after speaker at garden clubs.

5 thoughts on “Coping with plant name changes (or not)

  1. Just potted up a Lasiandra, sorry Tibouchina yesterday. I don’t mind the botanical biffo that surrounds nomenculture and I imagine it’s all for the betterment of science, but there is no getting around the annoyance.

    It’s the mental double take that takes place and if you are a bit OCD, as I think most of us are, the two names constantly rattle around the cranium vying for attention. It get’s exhausting.

    Speaking of exhausting…we have given up on the ABC gardening show. Had a guest from the UK with us and we watched the last episode on Sunday. If I’m not careful with my comments Catherine will take a hatchet to me, so all I will say is……. pleeeez…….Come back Stephen.

    • Stephen, you are missed. It was good to have a presenter with a really broad plant knowledge and who treated gardening viewers as adults! For example, I cant imagine a topic such as that of this blog turning up on GA nowadays. Costa is a terrific presenter too, but IMO he should have his own dedicated show on ABC3.

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