Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Identity Crisis

Lately, most of my time has been spent on display labels for plants on the grounds.  One of the most annoying parts of making plant labels is plant names.  More times than not, it just can't be as simple as identifying a car make/model/year or an individual's first and last, it just wouldn't be nearly as much fun.  Regarding common names, there are no solid rules for a "correct" or "incorrect" name and it is usually the most widely-used common name that becomes the "accepted" name for a given region or language.  Common names can be assigned to any plant by anyone at any time, even if it is a misleading name (i.e. a plant known by many as the cardboard palm is not actually a palm; it is a cycad).  This system can result in an overwhelming plethora of common names in different languages, which need to be considered on a case-by-case basis for each plant.  Scientific names can be just as confusing, although the ideal of one Latin name for one plant across all languages is a goal constantly being worked towards (although sometimes the contrary seems true).  Unfortunately, scientists who work with plant names and classification (plant taxonomists) often have differing opinions about these names.  There are different ways scientists interpret the definition of a "species," so even though there might be only one species name given to a given group of plants throughout the world by one scientist, another scientist may consider there to be ten different species in this group based on differences in stature.   The recent advent of DNA sequencing as a tool for determining evolutionary relationship has also led to another re-naming frenzy, even though results of these analyses should be considered with caution for a number of reasons.  Not to mention there is an attractiveness to having one's initials as author of a plant name and publishing incentive in the scientific community to reclassify/rename a plant.  Also, when communication was not as instant in the past as it is today, two or more individuals in different geographic locations may have assigned different names to the same plant at around the same time, so scientists today must research past records to determine which individual published the name first with solid evidence (a plant specimen) of which plant the name refers to.  These are only a few examples of why I usually plan on doing this sort of work on a Friday because I know from prior experience that my brain will need at least a two-day vacation afterwards of near-zero intellectual activity to recover and rewire.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

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