A Rose By Any Other Name

Originally posted on Agritate, which is no longer active.

I was discussing the value of botanical taxonomic accuracy with my beau the other day. Apparently, taxonomy is a hot topic this week—I just stumbled across a post about taxonomy as a field through a recent Denim and Tweed post. The post brings up good points about the paper it mentions (the lack of analysis of overall biological field growth being chief among them), although it doesn’t get into the discussion about the inherent value of taxonomic reassignments, which was the topic of my exchange.

Why keep moving plants around the hierarchy? Why give them such funky names?

Well, say that one plant species is plodding along happily in its genus for decades. Suddenly, the Taxonomists of Doom reassign it to a different genus on the basis of new (likely genetic) data. The new genus was previously thought to have been reproductively incompatible with the old genus, so no one tried to hybridize this plant with members of its new genus. But this reassignment offers new opportunity for hybridizing and introducing potentially competitive traits into, say, agricultural or commercially important landscaping plants that wouldn’t have otherwise been considered.

That is a hypothetical, though not improbable, scenario. But consider also reassignment of plants into genuses that are known for their pharmaceutical benefit—screening every single species of every genus is an extremely tall order. If a plant, on the basis of new genetic information, were reassigned to a genus that is more commonly associated with producing compounds with commercial or medical application, why, that plant might offer new opportunities for drugs or other beneficial products.

The crazy Latin and ancient Greek naming system might not make sense to my beau, who would prefer that the species be numbered like the Borg do, but these names also tell us something about the plants—their physical characteristics, where they were first discovered, the environment they grow in, or other plants they may be associated with—without ever even having to see the plant.

Perhaps because I’ve spent time around plants and biological research, the descriptive hierarchical naming system does make sense to me. And, as a gardener, I do get irked when I discover a plant I have been calling one name had actually been reassigned years ago. But the irksomeness doesn’t come from the shifting nature of plants’ names but rather more from myself not confirming the name’s accuracy. I have started to use The Plant List, which has popped up a lot on botanical blogs I follow, to confirm (or at least check the spelling of) plant names when I purchase a new plant or stash of seeds. It is nice to have at least some sort of reference, if plant name accuracy is important to you. It does, sometimes, seem to lack certain plants—but then, some of the ones I grow are hard enough to find even on Google!

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