Simple standardized nomenclature is getting rusty.

Buick Electra used to mean something. Chrysler Imperial and Lincoln Town Car did also. That was at a time when cars were still distinguishable. Instead of random numbers with a few letters, they had distinctive names. These names, although distinct, conformed to a standardized pattern. This pattern of naming was comparable to botanical nomenclature. 

According to botanical nomenclature, plants are identifiable by genus and species. Their ‘gen’us is a more ‘gen’eral designation than their ‘speci’fic ‘speci’es designation. A family is a larger and more general classification than genus, and in turn, fits into another more general group. Most of us are not concerned with the many classifications beyond family. 

For example, the botanical name of silver maple is Acer saccharinum. Acer is the genus. saccharinum is the species. Acer saccharinum is in the Sapindaceae family. (For botany, genus and species names are italicized, and species names are not capitalized.) Buick Electra is similarly in the General Motors family. Buick is its genus. Electra is its species.

Varieties and cultivars are even more specific designations within species. Some are the products of breeding. Some are naturally occurring. A cultivar is a ‘cultivated variety’ that does not perpetuate naturally like other varieties do. Most cultivars propagate by cloning. (Variety and cultivar names are capitalized and enclosed within single quotation marks.)

For example, Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ is a cultivar of red maple. It exhibits a distinctly rounded canopy and foliar color in autumn that is superior to that of the simple species in the wild. It might compare to a Buick Skylark Gran Sport, which is essentially a cultivar of Skylark with a stronger engine. Botanical and automotive nomenclature are quite similar. 

Such similarities of nomenclature are no advantage. While cars forfeited their distinctive titles for mundane numeric designations, plants forfeited their species names for cultivar names. Such abbreviation of nomenclature interferes with accurate identification. Those unfamiliar with it may not know if Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ is an Eastern or Western redbud, or something else.


12 thoughts on “Nomenclature Was Designed For Simplicity

  1. And the great thing is, it is an international language. Let’s use it. I often have a problem knowing what American bloggers are talking about when they use common names which are unknown here.

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      1. ? What? Are the sycamores that are weeds species of Acer? Now I am getting it all mixed up. The sycamores are likely Acer platanoides (which incidentally translates to ‘maple with sycamore foliage’ (or ‘sycamore with maple foliage’)), which happens to be an aggressively invasive exotic species in the East and Pacific Northwest.


      2. The sycamores are Acer pseudoplatanus and they are weedy trees because they seed everywhere They attract aphids and the sticky secretions coat everything underneath. Mature trees have a beautiful bark though. Acer plantanoides is the Norway Maple wbich is a bit more refined. One of my favourite trees in my garden is Acer ‘Drummondii’ which is the variagated form of Acer plantanoides.

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      3. NO WAY! Acer platanoides ‘Drumondii’ is one of those cultivars that I would like to grow, but can not justify! There were a few next to Highway 101 south of San Jose since about the late 1970s. I recently considered going there to get cuttings, only to find that they were removed for the widening of the freeway. It is just as well, since I have no use for them, and would have difficulty accommodating even one. They were quite pretty for a species that is not often so pretty in the chaparral climate, especially on the edge of a freeway. Anyway, I did manage to get cuttings and scions from the Acer platanoides ‘Schwedlerii’ this year, which I am very pleased about. Coincidentally, we got five Acer platanoides ‘Royal Red’ at work. It was not my project, and I was not aware that they were coming until they were here, but I am pleased with them. They have better color than my old fashioned ‘Schwedlerii’, but I prefer mine because they are what I grew up with. Are you familiar with ‘Princeton Gold’? It looks pretty in pictures, but I dislike yellow foliage, and I suspect that it would not do so well here. I have never met Acer pseudoplatnus, but have noticed that those who are familiar with it are none too keen on it. Wow, I am sorry to leave such a long comment.


      4. Yes, I think Princeton Gold is fabulous. The only 2 big acers I have are ‘Drummondii’ and ‘Brilliantissimum’ which is looking wonderful right now, but to my amazement a seedling has apeared in my garden which looks just like ‘Royal Red’ although there is no such tree anywhere round here.

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      5. Oh yes, I just saw that. That was my observation; that it looks like ‘Royal Red’, or one of those sorts, but even if there was a tree nearby, seedlings from such cultivars are rare. (That is partly why cultivars are grown where the straight species is not welcome.)


  2. Since my primary interest is native plants, I rarely have need for anything beyond genus and species, and the occasional ‘var.’ But when I read gardening blogs, I often have no idea what people are talking about. This helped. Also: common names aren’t necessarily common. I’ve bumped into plants that have multiple ‘common names,’ and the same ‘common name’ often is applied to a variety of plants. Those scientific names are important!

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    1. Well, common names are regional, even within regions in which the same language is used. The lack of species names in so-called botanical names is annoying though. If one is to be so vague, he or she may as well use common names. ‘Landscapers’ who refer to Japanese maples as ‘Acers’ annoy me by their insistence that the native bigleaf maples are not ‘Acers’.

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