Human Flower Project

Sed Qualis Illa Latine?

“But what is it in Latin?” With new international rules, plants will no longer have to be described in Latin.


The former Aster oblongifolius (now Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) has a complete description in Latin.

Photo: Illinois Wildflowers

Horticulturists, at least those fluent in English, just got a bye from the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN). As of January 1, 2012, plant scientists will no longer have to provide a Latin description of newly identified species in order to get these plants on the books, as it were. Now, such descriptions can be made in either Latin or English, and for the most part, the reaction among botanists has been very favorable.

By expanding the ways in which new species can be introduced, most experts say, discoveries in the plant kingdom can be more swiftly catalogued, speeding up research. Most critically, speeding up the international system of identification, many say, will make it possible to protect more endangered plants sooner, before they face extinction.

imageAn orchid described in Latin by Carl Linneaus in Flora zeylanica: sistens plantas indicas Zeylonæ insulæ (1747)

Image: Albiflora

“When Linnaeus standardized the system of species description in the 18th century, Latin was the language of science,” writes the New York Times. “The binomial names used by Homo sapiens are Latin, and for years botanists, unlike zoologists, were still required to use a page or two of Latin to describe the distinctive characteristics of a newly named species — the attributes that made it different from any other.”

That hoop had become either too narrow or too high for many botanists to jump through.

But jumping will still be required. The Latin binomial names (Achillea millefolium for Yarrow, Cirsium vulgare for Bull Thistle) live on and will continue to be the method for naming plants.

We asked our two botanical experts James Wandersee of Louisiana State University and Allen Bush, plantsman of Jelitto Seed, what they thought of the changes.

AB: “I’m hip to Latin binomial nomenclature - an ingenious way to categorize the living and dead - but the Latin descriptions were never part of my horticultural world. I have never had to deal with that. Well, I tried, but failed Latin in the 8th grade.

“Still, I’m not sure why they cast Latin aside when Google translate handles translations so easily.  It must have been too much of an impediment to thorough understanding. So English got the nod. I think the botanic names will remain Latin. That doesn’t mean we won’t lose a few loved ones along the way.”

JW: “I fully support Allen’s comments. I took 3 years of Latin and if you don’t use it often, your skills deteriorate rapidly.

“The reason botany likes Latin for nomenclature is that it’s a ‘dead’ and therefore semantically unchanging language—thus it can become a stable universal tool. But, there are fewer and fewer botanists who are also Latin-competent scholars who can handle the nuances of Latin vocabulary and syntax, and yet there are lots of uncatalogued plants waiting to be described and classified.

“My understanding is that the binomial Latin species name will continue to be assigned and used, but the species description itself no longer must be written in Latin in order to be accepted. Many scientific societies’ journals are also moving online to escape rising print publication costs and become permanently accessible online through JSTOR.

imageCone of a Douglas Fir, a plant that’s changed botanical names 21 times.

Photo: Bentler

“In addition, molecular genetics is revising many existing plant taxa as we are trying to move to an arrangement that reflects plant evolution rather than just shared, visually distinguishable characteristics.

“I would also emphasize that The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) is only applicable to wild plants. Because of the importance of many cultivated plants, a separate set of rules has been laid down in 57 articles within the International Code of Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants or ICNCP.”

James Wandersee, EarthScholar, also pointed us to this comment by Sandra Knapp, noted botanist with the Natural History Museum in London: “In places like Ethiopia, for example, people are finding it very difficult to write [plant descriptions] in Latin. But in reality everybody’s bad at it.”

Having not done so well in 8th grade Latin ourselves, and unsure when if ever we might revisit this topic, we solicited our experts for some particularly interesting examples of Latin naming.

See: Marty Wingate’s article on “Why Plant Names Change” for the curious case of the Douglas Fir’s 21 name changes!” Dr. Wandersee recommends.

imageThe Landrover has a figwort named for it

Photo: Sometimespace

Some favorites of Allen’s: “A few years ago, the ‘splitters’ in the taxonomist community moved Asters to the trash heap with a bunch of new names. The aromatic aster, Aster oblongifolius became, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium. Pity that. Aster was a lovely name and so easy to remember.”

Allen is quick to note, “Not all botanists are all kill joys. A figwort, Scrophularia landroveri, was named to commemorate an expensive sport utility vehicle.

imageSlobodan Milosevic, former Yugoslavian dictator, had at least one admirer in the horticultural community. There’s a plant named for him.

Photo: Michael Porro, via MSNBC

“And then there is Pedicularis milosevicii, a species from the Caucasus, named for Slobodan Milosevic. The roots of some Pedicularis have parasitic needs for other plant species in order to survive. The former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, Milosevic was tried for war crimes in the Hague for 5 years and died in his cell in 2006 before a verdict was reached.  The common name, lousewort, fits Milosevic. The name originated from folklore when lice infestations of livestock occured following the ingestion of Pedicularis plant parts.”

How fitting that the plant named for Allen himself would be “tolerant” and cheerful. James Wandersee was eager to learn the background, and with characteristic generosity, Allen obliged us.

He writes, “Chrysogonum ‘Allen Bush’ is more ignominy than honor. 25 years ago I sold some plants of Chrysogonum virginianum to Andre Viette, a Virginia nurseryman. I think he was short on a wholesale order and needed a few more. He recognized that what I had sent was different than what he had. So he distinguished (?) the two, naming one, ‘Mark Viette’ after his son, and the other after me.

imageChrysogonum ‘Allen Bush’

“I don’t think there was anything so special about ‘Allen Bush’ which is really nothing more than a clonal selection of Chrysogonum virginianum and more of a clump-forming garden plant than the normally rhizomatous Chrysogonum virginianum var. australe – a southern woodland species – or the northern, more upright, Chrysogonum viriginianum var. virginianum

“‘Allen Bush’ – bless his heart – is easy as pie to propagate by division or cuttings, cheap to produce and sell (there are no patents or royalities) and looks good in the early spring when it flowers. But it’s not such a great garden plant. I think there are better Chrysogonums garden cultivars out there. But I hate to hear ‘Mark Viette’  or ‘Pierre Bennerup’  is better than ‘Allen Bush.’ I’m a sensitive kind of guy… But, it’s still funny, years later to meet someone and they say, ‘Hey, I’ve got you in the garden!’”

Gratias agimus tibi, Allen and Jim (...something like that).

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