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|1) Names for Plant Families
2) Common names
3) Scientific names
4) History of scientific names
Plants that share many similar characteristics are grouped into families. These families have both scientific and common names. Click for descriptions of plant families included on this website.
Scientific Names for Plant Families
to the agreement reached in the mid-1900s by members of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, scientific names
of plant families all have the Latin suffix "aceae": Asteraceae, Fabaceae, Rosaceae, etc. "Aceae" is Latin for "a family" or "a group". "Rosaceae"
thus means "the Rose Family ". You use a scientific family name without adding the word "family".
The International Code does accept eight alternate scientific family names that do not end in "aceae".
Almost all botanists, plant nursery owners, and gardeners use the scientific family names ending in "aceae".
Stanley Welsh, author of the excellent A Utah Flora, uses the alternate family names on the right side in the above list, but he uses scientific family names ending in aceae for all other families.
Unusual Names for Plant Families
The list below shows some alternate scientific family names that are used by William Weber (Colorado Flora). Few, if any, other botanists accept these names.
This website uses the more accepted family names from the table below.
Common Names for Plant Families
Some of the most often used American English common family names and their scientific name equivalents are listed in the following table. You will notice that a few families have several commonly used names: Asteraceae is called the Sunflower Family, Aster Family, Composite Family, or Daisy Family. On this website I call it the Sunflower Family. There is no organization that sets standards for common names, but the following names are widely accepted across the United States.
Why Use Scientific Names?
Common names have no standardization. Each country and regions within countries have their own common names for plants.
Scientific names are standardized world-wide.
Each person makes the decision about how accurate and detailed they want to be in understanding plants. Some of us are happy knowing "Oak". Others want to know what kind of Oak. Others want to know all the details about Oaks. Start where you are comfortable, keep your options open, and see where you end up.
Following is a brief summary about what common and scientific names are and why common names should be avoided and scientific names should be used.
Common and scientific names.
Common names have no standardization even in small local areas and thus common names vary from person to person, state to state, region to region, and country to country. Even at the plant family level, there is confusion in common names. One person says "Sunflower Family", another says "Aster Family", another "Daisy Family", and another " Composite Family". Some people say "Peas", some "Beans", some "Legumes" or "Vetches" or "Milk Vetches". The name "Lady Slipper" is applied to a number of different Orchids; the name "Chickweed" to many different species; the name "Primrose" to members of entirely different families. And all thorny plants are just plain "Cactus" -- whether they are cylindrical or flat, Yuccas, or spiny shrubs.
If you want to purchase a plant you admire, or if you want to work toward the protection of that plant, or if you want to learn more about that plant, you will need the exact, unmistakable scientific name. There is no such thing as an exact, unmistakable common name.
Following are some of the cons and pros of common names. (The cons by far outweigh the pros.)
1) Common names are made up by anyone for any reason and are not recorded or attached to a preserved plant specimen.
2) In almost all instances it is impossible to find out who gave the common name, when they gave it, what it means, and, most importantly, exactly which plant it refers to.
3) There is no standardization of common names. There are no books that list common names with details about the precise characteristics of each plant so we can know for sure what plant is being referred to.
4) Common names do not show relationships among plants. Your last name is your family name and shows relationship; a plant's scientific name places it in a group of similar plants with the same name and this shows relationship. Common names do not show relationships.
5) Most plants have no common name. (Now thatís a very good reason for not using common names.) Remember this when you look at plant identification books. Most authors will tell you that they have made up a number of common names just for publishing in their book. Very often that made up common name is just a rearrangement of the scientific name. For instance, the scientific name Phacelia fremontii becomes Fremont's Phacelia.
6) Plants with common names always have several common names because names vary from person to person, region to region, and country to country. Thus, using common names frequently leads to misunderstandings and arguments.
7) In a number of instances, the same common name refers to several different species, not to one specific plant: There are many "Bluebells", "Paintbrush", "Goldenrod", "Daisy", "Groundsel", "Geranium", "Chickweed", "Fir", "Pine". So if you want to know the name of a particular plant and someone tells you "That's a Paintbrush", they have just helped you about as much as someone telling you that man's name is "tall human being"; there are many different kinds of Paintbrush and many different people who are tall.
8) Some totally unrelated plants have the exact same common name, for example, the "Skunk Cabbage" of the East and the West. The same confusion reigns with many other names: "Bluebells", "Lily", "Buttercup", "Shooting Star".
9) Plants in the Southwest United States have Spanish, Native American, and English common names. Which common names should be used? The truth is that they are all jumbled together and in the Southwest it is common to walk a trail and refer to one plant by an English common name (Elephant Heads), the next plant by a Spanish name ("Osha"), and the next by an Indian name ("Chuchu pate").
Where do common names come from? As I indicated above, anyone can make them up. People make up common names to refer to some real or imaginary aspect of the plant. Some common names refer to a perceived visual (often color) characteristic of a plant ("Bluebells", "Golden Glow", "Babyís Breath"), or are some part of the scientific name ("Geranium", "Delphinium", "Aster", "Whipple's Penstemon", "Engelmann's Cactus"), or are derived from human names ("Black-eyed Susan", "St. Johnís Wort"), or refer to a plantís resemblance to another plant ("False Solomonís Seal", "False Hellebore"), or are given because they remind human beings of something ("Butter and Eggs", "Monkey Flower"), or are assigned for some real or imaginary medicinal property ("Lousewort", "Self-Heal").
Overall, then, a common name should be used with caution, realizing that each name frequently refers to several plants, not to one plant, and that the common name varies from person-to-person.
What are the advantages of using common names?
1) Because our common names are almost always in English, our native language, they are easy to pronounce and, therefore, easier to remember.
2) They sometimes have a charm about them: Blue-eyed Mary, Cone Flower, Baby's Breath, Indian Paintbrush, Chiming Bells, Perky Sue....
3) Although I have pointed out that one major problem with common names is that they vary so much, there are some common names that are fairly standard and widely understood: Oak, Pine, Sycamore, Ash, Dogwood, Mullein, Thistle, Poison Ivy. But most such standard common names refer not to one particular plant but to a group of plants. If your favorite Oak tree dies and you go to a nursery to buy a replacement, it won't get you far to say, "I want an Oak". You need at least to know "White Oak" or better yet, "Quercus alba". That way you will get exactly what you want.
My wife and I have special common names that we have assigned to a few plants and we do use these names occasionally -- in a whisper only to each other.
Overall it should be remembered that the point of names is to facilitate communication. Common names do not do that.
The common names that I give in this website are those that I have heard most often associated with plants in the Four Corners region.
Scientific names are in Latin and/or Greek, are assigned by botanists to plants, and are accepted internationally, i.e., the exact same name is used for the plant in China, South Africa, Chile, and Canada.
To be accepted, a scientific name must be written on a collection sheet with the original plant (the type specimen). The name must be published in a book, botanical journal, newspaper, magazine, or accepted website along with a detailed description of the plant. From this information future researchers can always find out who collected the plant, who named the plant, when they collected and named it, and the precise characteristics of the plant. For an example see this page on my website.
Most importantly, future researchers can see the actual plant, for the plant is preserved in a herbarium. Herbaria are now putting photographs of their specimens on-line so a wider audience has access to them. Click for an example of a virtual herbarium.
The scientific name for a plant, i.e., the name of the species, is always two-part, two words. The first word designates the "genus" to which the plant belongs and the second, called the "specific epithet" or "species epithet", or "species name", gives a name to distinguish this plant from all others in the same genus. For example, in the name Senecio serra, "Senecio" is the genus and "serra" is the specific epithet. Senecio serra is the name of the species. There are many other Senecios but only one Senecio serra. No other plant in the world has the name "Senecio serra".
All Senecios are members of the Sunflower Family, scientifically called Asteraceae. All Asteraceae share a number of similar characteristics. Members of Asteraceae that share a smaller number of very similar characteristics are grouped into genera. Each genus is comprised of a number of species that share an even smaller group of similar characteristics. And finally, each species has some significantly different characteristics that set it apart from all other members of the genus and thus from all other plants in the world.
Both the genus and the specific epithet are italicized; the genus is capitalized and the specific epithet is lower case: Senecio serra.
Scientific names describe a characteristic of the plant (hairy, short, twin seeds), show a relationship to other plants (similar to a plant from another country, similar to another genus), honor a place or person (see the Biographies of Naturalists section of this website), or are derived from history (an ancient use or the name of an ancient country where the plant was first recorded).
The scientific name almost always appears as only the genus and specific epithet, e.g., Senecio serra, Arnica cordifolia. But the full scientific name includes the author's name and the date of publication of the description, e.g.,
Arnica cordifolia Hooker 1834
This means that the plant was named and described by William Jackson Hooker in 1834. Having this information leads one to the written material where the plant was first described and named and then one can find out where the plant was collected, why the name was given, who collected it, and all the details of the plants structure.
Note that the person named after the plant name is not necessarily (in fact, most often not) the person who discovered the plant. Arnica cordifolia was discovered by Thomas Drummond and he sent it to Hooker to describe and name.
There are a number of other variations in the appearance of the scientific name:
a) Picea engelmannii Parry ex Engelmann
This means that Parry named Picea engelmannii (what we commonly call Engelmann Spruce) and sent a specimen and the name to Engelmann who published the description with the name Parry suggested for the plant OR it could mean that Parry did attempt to publish the name and description but his attempt was ruled invalid and later Engelmann validly published a description of the plant and gave it the name that Parry had first conceived.
Although the plant bears Engelmann's name, he did not discover it or name it. It is common for a plant to be named to honor a person -- perhaps even a person who never saw the plant, although in this case, Engelmann did see the plant named for him when he traveled to Colorado (a number of years after it was discovered by Parry).
b) Calypso bulbosa (L.) Oakes
This means that Linnaeus ("L.") first named this plant but the name he gave (which is never shown, but in this case was Cypripedium bulbosum) was changed by Oakes to reflect more accurate classification. The person who first names a plant always has their name attached to the plant even if the plant name is changed. If someone else were to come along and change Oakes' plant name, Oakes' name would be dropped:
Calypso linearis (L.) Smith
As this last point indicates, scientific names change: new research can show that a plant was originally mis-classified. Unfortunately there is no national or world-wide group that reviews research and publishes THE most up-to-date scientific name. If a researcher believes that they have found evidence that plants should be regrouped and renamed, they publish this evidence and it is gradually accepted or rejected by peers. This means that several scientific names might be used for the same plant until the passage of time settles the dispute. This is messy, confusing, and irritating. But at least these alternate names are always linked and published together so even though the scientific community does not agree on one name as THE name, we do know the two or three choices. (Click to read further discussion of this under "Synonyms". And click to read a nice, short explanation by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, about why names change.)
A very hopeful sign is that over the past several decades more and more regional and national floras have been developed and made available on the web. These floras are going a long way in helping to standardize scientific botanical names.
To facilitate communication it is important to have one text as the basis for your scientific names. The names that I give for plants in this website are those designated by John Kartesz in his BONAP website. These names are shown in bold, synonyms are non-bold.
Click to read a story about the complexity and difficulty of naming plants: "The Story of Naming Engelmann and Colorado Blue Spruce".
Do your best at pronouncing the scientific name and you will be understood. Anyone who laughs at you, wrinkles their nose at you, or mocks you for your pronunciation, is not worth associating with.
William Stearn, 20th century authority on botanical Latin (his book Botanical Latin is a standard) states,
Stearn does give several basic principles for pronouncing scientific Latin:
1) "The pronunciation of a word is determined by the sounds of the individual letters, the length... of the vowels, and the place of accent".
2) Pronounce every vowel. There are exceptions (of course), for instance, when two vowels come together.
3) When a person's name is part of a scientific name, pronounce it as close as possible to the actual way the person would say their name. Thus Stearns is indicating that for Thomas Nuttall we should say "Nuttall iana", not "Nuh tall i ana". A number of names are however, not of English origin and this presents a problem. What is the proper pronunciation of "Krascheninnikovia"?
I like two further points made by Gleason in his 1932 article in "Torreya":
1) Keep word roots intact, i.e., pronounce "ammophila" as "ammo phila" (sand loving), not "am moph ila". Say "Dryo pteris" (wood fern), not "Dry op teris"; "hetero thee ca" (varying seeds), not "heter oth eca". Keeping word roots together can conflict with another rule of botanical Latin pronunciation: emphasize the third to the last syllable. "Heter oth e ca" emphasizes the third to last syllable. "Hetero theca" keeps the word roots intact: "Hetero" is Greek for "different" and "theca" is Greek for "case", i.e., "seeds". Heterotheca ray and disk flowers have different shaped seeds. I think keeping word roots intact helps us understand the meaning of words.
2) Gleason makes another point which I personally agree with, but almost all American botanists disagree with. Gleason really dislikes pronouncing "ii" endings as "ee eye" as in "Nuttallii" pronounced "Nuh tall ee eye" or "Haydenii" pronounced "Hay den ee eye". Gleason pronounces these words as "Nuttall ee" and "Hayden ee", that is, with a long e at the end, not with a long e followed by "eye". It is my experience that most botanists who are not Americans conform to Gleason's suggestion. Most botanists who are Americans do not.
Colorado flora expert, William Weber, agrees with Gleason: "The letter "i" should always be pronounced "ee." This goes for the double ii, which may be given as either one or two syllables", "e" or "e e".
Pronunciation of family names
I pronounce family names so that the
"aceae" that ends all family names is pronounced a (as
in ace) c (see) e (as
Another common pronunciation of family names is "a c a" instead of "a c e":
Be absolutely assured that even expert botanists, even those who consider themselves well-versed in botanical pronunciations, DO NOT AGREE ABOUT HOW TO PRONOUNCE BOTANICAL NAMES. The differences come about because of the use of classical versus modern Latin pronunciation, because of the fact that a significant number of botanical names are in Greek (so how should they be Latinized?), and because of many other factors, primary among them, habit. Botanists learned plant names and pronunciation of those names when they were in college and I have met many botanists who say, "That's the name (or pronunciation) that I learned in school and that's the name (or pronunciation) that I will stick with!"
Many scientific names have made their way into the common name vocabulary: Geranium, Delphinium, Aster, Gentian, Orchid, Penstemon, Rose, Saxifrage, etc.
Kids readily pronounce and remember Latin botanical names. Mind-blocks stop the rest of us, but once we attempt it and master it, we find that using scientific names allows us to communicate about plants much more easily.
Get in the habit of using scientific names and you can walk a trail, meet someone who speaks a foreign language, and the two of you can still talk about plants. Chinese language scientific names for plants are the same as English language scientific names.
Synonyms: Scientific names can change, because continued study of a plant may show the plant to have been incorrectly classified. Although a plant may have had various scientific names attached to it over the years, only one name is currently accepted by the author of the book or website you are using. The previously accepted names are called "synonyms". This is a special botanical use of the word "synonym", for in standard usage "synonym" means, "a word having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word". Such synonyms can often be used interchangeably. But botanical synonyms are not interchangeable. Only one name is accepted and synonyms should not be used as a substitute for the currently accepted name. Lists of synonyms can be found on-line (on this website, for instance) and in detailed botanical books.
This all sounds very precise and very orderly. Unfortunately it isn't. Plant authorities often do not agree on what the name for a plant should be; one authority's name for a plant may be another authority's synonym. Such is the case for a number of plants in this website. As I indicated above, having a number of scientific names floating around at the same time is messy, confusing, and irritating. The botanical community needs a regional, national, or international committee to review proposed name changes and issue a list of currently accepted names. Lack of funding, lack of interest, and petty pride and politics have stopped this from happening. Perhaps egos have the most to do with it: There isn't much of a drive to standardize scientific names when scientists say, "Well that's the name I learned for the plant when I was in college, and that's the name I'll stick with". Or, "I'm the authority on plants in this state and I'll use whatever names I think are best."
On this website I try to steer through this mess by using plant names given by John Kartesz's Synthesis of the Flora of North America. Kartesz's Synthesis (available soon as a DVD) describes plants, provides over 150,000 photographs, and gives county by county records of every plant in North America.) On this website, Kartesz's names are in bold and are first for every plant. Most of Kartesz's work on plant names and plant distributions is now available on-line. In particular, see his fantastic Taxonomic Data Center.
Let's look in more detail at how several scientific names might get attached to one plant.
One way is very common even today: an expert on a genus concludes after years of thorough research that several members of this genus really belong in a different, perhaps even new, genus. Research does take time to get disseminated, reviewed, and accepted. While this acceptance is coming, some botanists may continue using the old genus name. Three examples from this website: the genera Gilia, Arabis, and Senecio.
Another scenario: Imagine that you are a collector in the Colorado mountains in 1840. You are an accomplished, experienced botanist so you take it upon yourself to name and describe the plants you have been collecting. You find that one of your plants is unknown to you and you give it a new genus name, but here in the wilderness you do not have access to the latest botanical books from Massachusetts and London. Years later, you or someone else reviews your collection or compares your description with previously published descriptions and it is realized that your plant had been found and named prior to your naming it. The earlier name is accepted. The name you gave the plant is now just a synonym and no longer accepted.
The same scenario has been played out with many variations. For instance, the botanist/classifiers in Massachusetts might receive a collection of plants from you and find several unknown specimens. They search all available literature, find no reference to the new plants, and, therefore, give them a new genus and species name. But the same scene was being acted out in London at Kew Gardens from a collection returned to them by a collector they had financially supported. They find the same new plants that you in Massachusetts had just given new names. They give the plants new names. Which are the accepted names? That will be based on The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature which states that the earliest name takes precedence.
Another very common scenario is the misnaming of a plant: someone in Massachusetts assigns the plant to the genus Aster but a later examination of that plant (the "type" specimen) shows it to be a Townsendia. Aster becomes just a synonym. (This is precisely what happened with Townsendia.)
Finally, here are two common misunderstandings about names:
1) The person who finds a plant, names the plant. Not necessarily so. Usually not so. Most plants are collected by one person, named by another. Some people like collecting and roaming the hills, some like studying minutia in an office.
2) The person who finds a plant gets the plant named for them. No. About 75% of the plants on this website are named for a characteristic (hairy, smooth) of that plant, or for the place the plant was collected (Missouriensis, Virginiana, Canadensis), or are derived from history (the name might come to us from an ancient country), or show a relationship (similarity to another species). When the plant is named for a person, it may be for a person who never saw the plant, it may be for a famous person (botanist or not), or it may be for the person who collected the plant.
Most common wildflower books rely on some regional botanical authority's detailed book for their plant names, and it is in this book, not the common wildflower picture book, that you will find the accepted scientific name and its synonyms listed. Most scientific plant names are agreed on and are identical from one book to another, but when there are differences (and many plants have had a number of scientific names over the years) you will find that common wildflower picture books are least likely to have the presently accepted scientific name, regional authorities are much more likely, and constantly updated on-line data bases are most likely.
The most widely accepted authorities for the names of plants in the United States are the Synthesis of the North American Flora (available soon on a DVD from the Biota of North America Program) and the Flora of North America Project. Most of Kartesz's work on plant names and plant distributions is now available on-line. In particular, see his fantastic Taxonomic Data Center.
Recent genetic analysis has led to many major changes in plant classification. Numerous families and genera have been rearranged and will continue to be rearranged in the near future. You can read about these changes: in the Utah Native Plant Society newsletter and on the Missouri Botanical Garden website.
A Brief History of Scientific Names
Plants have, of course, been named for thousands of years. Before the written word, the verbal naming of plants allowed people to communicate about a plant's location, uses, dangers, etc. From the time of the Greeks (especially Aristotle and his student Theophrastus) written plant names were grouped and classified based on a system that served their purposes of the ordering of nature, gathering and using plants for medicinal purposes, etc. For several centuries these systems formed the basis of plant classification until Dioscorides wrote his De Materia Medica (c. 64 A.D.), which classified over 600 medicinally used plants. Dioscorides' work remained the cornerstone of Western plant classification until major cultural changes came to the West in the 1500's: science bloomed, explorers brought thousands of new plants from around the world to be classified, and interest grew in learning about all plants (not just medicinal ones). Because of all this, the old systems of lengthy, non-standardized names were found to be unworkable.
Many individuals attempted to provide a more workable classification system. Of major importance was John Ray (1627-1705) of England who in 1682 wrote Methodus Plantarum which promoted the species as the ultimate taxonomic unit and utilized for the first time the categories "monocotyledons" and "dicotyledons". From 1686-1704 Ray published his master work, Historia Plantarum, a three volume work on over 18,000 plants. In these volumes Ray broke with past classification systems by grouping plants on the basis of a number of their characteristics; until Ray (and after him for many years) plants were grouped according to one major characteristic such as the color, flower structure, or medicinal use. Many of Ray's family groupings are still with us.
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) of Sweden built upon the work of Ray and many others and is now credited with providing the foundation of modern taxonomy. Classifying was a natural outgrowth of Linnaeus' youthful collecting of plants. animals, and rocks; his position as a Doctor (medicines were, of course, plant-based); and his interest in introducing new plants to benefit the economy of his native Sweden.
Unlike Ray, Linnaeus set up his categories of genus and species solely on the basis of floral parts: class was determined by stamens and order by pistils. This method placed very different plants in similar groupings and taxonomists eventually abandoned the floral groupings in favor of methods proposed in varying ways by John Ray, Bernard de Jussieu (1699-1777), Antoine L. de Jussieu (1748-1836), Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (1778-1841), and others. Work of these individuals led to classifying by examining the entire plant, not just the floral parts.
But Linnaeus' use of hierarchical classification and binomial nomenclature remains the basis of our present classification system. Linnaeus took each grouping of plants and placed it under another grouping of plants that shared similar characteristics. Over the last centuries taxonomists have changed and rearranged some of Linnaeus' groupings, but we still retain the basic Linnaean structure.
Linnaeus also remains important because of his world-wide view of botany. Many of his students went on world explorations (his student, Daniel Solander was the naturalist on Captain Cook's first trip around the world -- financed in large part by Sir Joseph Banks, who was also on the trip to collect plants) and brought Linnaeus specimens that fed his thirst for learning about and classifying plants.
In his life-time Linnaeus named and classified nearly 12,000 species, and in 1753 Linnaeus published his monumental botanical work, Species Plantarum which ordered, named, and described over 6,000 plants. Species Plantarum is recognized as a turning point in botanical nomenclature as it firmly entrenched the binomial classification system and began bringing order to a chaotic botanical taxonomy. Dozens of genera and species in this "Southwest Colorado Wildflower" website were first named and described in Species Plantarum.
Linnaeus wrote many other works in addition to Species Plantarum. One work which was quite dear to him was his 1737 Flora Lapponica following his 1732 six month collecting expedition to Lapland. There for the first time he saw what became his favorite plant, Linnaea borealis, named for him by his friend and fellow naturalist, Jan Frederik Gronovius.
Linnaeus jokingly tells us about the naming of Linnaea borealis in his Critica Botanica: "It is commonly believed that the name of a plant which is derived from that of a botanist shows no connection between the two...[but]...Linnaea was named by the celebrated Gronovius and is a plant of Lapland, lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering but for a brief space -- after Linnaeus who resembles it."
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