Scientific Names and Why They Change
Learning the names of the plants around us can be a challenge. If you are a serious student of an unusual group of plants, like orchids, cactus or palms, you may find that your favorites do not have common names. If you want to talk about them with other collectors, you have to learn those Latinized scientific names. Also, as you talk to other gardeners, you quickly learn that common names are not the same everywhere. Worse, a common name may be applied to several different unrelated plants. Scientific names give gardeners and botanists a common language that can be used around the world.
As you learn scientific names, you begin to realize that they explain relationships between plant species. If we look at orchids, each Cattleya species is closely related to every other member of the Cattleya genus. At the same time, this Cattleya species is different from species in the orchid genera of Dendrobium, Oncidium and Phalenopsis. In time, you may learn to recognize new plants as members of the Cattleya genus. If you go a little further, you may learn to appreciate the plant families. Cattleya is a member of the orchid family. The orchid family is very large and varied but a gardener can quickly begin to recognize many species in the orchid family and the traits that tie them together. Other plants may be more challenging. Most people recognize a cactus when they see one. However, a spiny, succulent Euphorbia from the deserts of southern Africa may confuse a gardener until they learn the specific traits that separate the cactus family from the euphorbia family. Likewise, a gardener might not recognize a leafy, shrubby Pereskia as a cactus at first glance. Again, learning the characteristics of the cactus family makes it easier to understand why this leafy plant is a cactus.
After working for so hard to learn these scientific names, a lot of us are upset when a botanist changes the name of a species, a genus or even a family. In actuality, these scientists are simply trying to better understand and convey to the rest of us the complex relationships of these different groups of plants. In many cases, it is very difficult to determine how to divide a large group of a closely related group of plants, especially when their ranges overlap. Newly discovered plants, new studies and new technologies provide botanists with new information. When that new information is evaluated, names may change.
The modern Linnaean system of plant classification and naming has been around for nearly three hundred years. In some cases, botanists have known that certain groups of plants were not properly described and organized. They had to wait until someone had the time and interest to delve deeply into these groups and publish their findings in a scientific journal. The old lily family was split into numerous new families several years ago. Some of the plant groups have moved back and forth from one family name to another. The changes continue as botanists continue their work to understand the details of the relationships between these plants.
Don't forget that scientists are people, too. It is wrong to expect them to understand everything about the complex, diverse world around us. Two experts may look at the same set of data and come up with different conclusions. As a result, it is possible for two or more names to be accepted by the scientific community at one time. As a gardener, think of name changes as part of a scientific process that is striving for a better understanding of the plants that we love.