New rules for naming plants in 2012

Ah, botany! After Latin, everyone’s favorite subject, right? So here’s a development involving both: the rules for naming new species of plants are being relaxed. Starting in 2012, that can be done in English, as well as the formerly-required Latin.

I would not know this if not for an Ottawa Citizen article by Tom Spears. And why the change? The article puts it this way:

The Botanical Congress says that so many people are discovering plants that it’s just not practical to keep Latinizing them. English, it says, is the modern global language.

Botanists name about 2,000 new species of plants, algae, and fungi every year. This is an important first step in preserving biodiversity: Someone has to know exactly what plants are in an ecosystem.

Here’s more detailing that change from a blog by the New York Flora Association.

Currently, in order to publish the name of a new taxon, e.g. a species, of non-fossil plants a description and/or a diagnosis in Latin must be provided. The Nomenclature Section modified this so that effective from 1 January 2012, the description and/or diagnosis may be in either English or Latin for valid publication of the name of all new taxa.

I muffed my best (only?) chance to name a new plant species. My maternal grandfather was a keen botanist. On one of his hiking visits, he found something he planned to submit as a new discovery. I learned later that taxonomists have long fallen into two basic two camps in terms of scientific classification: “lumpers” and “splitters”. Splitters lobby for more species, lumpers just the opposite. Grandfather was a splitter.

Grandfather kindly offered to let me pick out a name.  But I was too young to appreciate the opportunity. I failed to think up anything worth using.

I like to hike. I love to garden. Plants make me very happy! But, with apologies to my learned grandfather, I find listing them (by Latin names, families and distinguishing characteristics) about as interesting as watching paint dry. Truth be told, that apple rolled far, far away from the tree.

Oddly, grandfather was just the opposite. He loved everything to do with botany and collecting, but couldn’t be bothered with gardening. It takes all types, I guess.

How about you? Would you rather find plants or grow them?  If you stumbled upon something new, would you write it up in English, or keep it classy, with good old Latin?

Does this change count as progress and democracy? Or yet another surrender to intellectual laxity?

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5 Responses to “New rules for naming plants in 2012”

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  1. Ellen Rocco says:

    Love this topic, Lucy. In spite of some familiarity with plants that live in this neck of the woods, I wouldn’t know if something is known or unknown to botanists. Generally when I see a plant that I haven’t seen or noticed before, it turns out to be some kind of invasive that is all too well-known to botanists and conservationists and gardeners.

    When I first moved to the North Country, my best friends and closest neighbors were an elderly couple who had a small dairy about a third of a mile up the road. Aldena had a name for every plant–none of which were in Latin. There was “Joe Pye Weed,” and “butter and eggs,” and “yellow doc.” The best was “bombigilia,” her name for the small tree from which she picked buds to mix with tallow and slippery elm bark to make the best bag balm (used on dry or cracked cows’ udders and human hands). After years of trying to figure out why she called this tree “bombigilia,” it hit me one day: “Balm of Giliad” and, indeed, I identified it in our tree book.

    But, Milan–Aldena’s husband–had a much more efficient solution to the plant naming problem. When we were out haying or walking together, if I stopped to ask him the name of an unknown plant, his answer was always the same: “that’s a posy.” I’ve adopted this approach when someone asks me the name of a plant I don’t recognize. “Yup, that’s a posy.”

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  2. Kramskoor says:

    I can’t imagine not being fascinated by plant taxonomy. When I was in college the botany majors were cooler than theater majors.

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  3. Lucy Martin says:

    Kramskoor:

    Oh, I agree! The botanists I have met have been very cool folks. I should have attached the proper degree of personal regret about finding the subject beyond me.

    There’s a lengthy list of things I wish I was good at – botany and Latin included! My complain was like that of the tone-deaf person who wishes they, too, could sing on key.

    Side thought: does a change like this suggest English will be the new Latin? (The ‘universal’ language of communication across different cultures?) If so, what is gained and what might be lost?

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  4. Peter Hahn says:

    As a native English speaker, Im glad English is the new Latin (which I don’t speak). But, that said, botany taxonomy has a sound to it. Families, genera and species all are a little different in terms of endings, and I can’t imagine how you would do that in English. Especially since all the families and most of the genera are already known and already named in Latin does that mean that a new species would have a Latin genera but an English species name? Or do we need to now know both e.g. the legumes, or the pea family and the leguminosae?

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  5. Lucy Martin says:

    Good question Peter. I _think_ the names will still have to be in Latin. (Except for the “common name” as has long been customary).

    What’s changing is the requirement for the description and/or diagnosis. Quoting from the New York Flora Association Blog:

    “Currently, in order to publish the name of a new taxon, e.g. a species, of
    non-fossil plants a description and/or a diagnosis in Latin must be
    provided. The Nomenclature Section modified this so that effective from 1
    January 2012, the description and/or diagnosis may be in either English or Latin for valid publication of the name of all new taxa.”

    Having already admitted to appalling ignorance in botany, if any reader who understands this well wants to take a stab at summarizing the changes, please do!

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