Gardening Has Something In Common With Automobiles.

Buick is the genus. Electra is the species. Buick Electra is universally the most elegant luxury sedan of all time!

Horticulturists, biologists, and many other professionals who may interact with colleagues who speak other languages or even slightly different regional dialects use Latin to identify, among other things, biological organisms. Latin names may be cumbersome to pronounce and daunting to spell, but are universal to those of us who use them. This is important because common names are so regionally variable.

For example, some of the European maples that we know as maples here are known as sycamores in England, but are known everywhere by their Latin name of Acer. Similarly, North American sycamores that are known as maples or plane trees in various regions are all likewise known everywhere by their Latin name of Platanus. The universality of Latin names therefore facilitates accurate identification.

Latin names are very helpful when researching plants. A tree known simply as a ‘cedar’ might be a calocedrus, arborvitae, juniper, cypress, chamaecyparis or a true cedar, just to name a few. Knowing that the particular tree is more specifically a ‘red cedar’ perhaps limits the possibilities to arborvitae or juniper. Identifying the tree specifically as a Juniperus virginiana will help us find the most accurate information about it, even though it is not really a cedar at all, but a juniper. Juniperus is the general ‘genus’ name of all junipers. Virginiana is the specific ‘species’ name of the particular juniper that is known locally as the Eastern red cedar. (‘Genera’ and ‘specie’ are plural for ‘genus’ and ‘species’.)

Latin names work like the names of cars. Buick, Chrysler and Mercury are all like genus names. Electra, Imperial and Grand Marquis are all like species names of particular Buicks, Chryslers and Mercurys. ‘Limited’, ‘Custom’ and ‘Brougham’ are like variety names, like ‘Variegata’, ‘Compacta’, and ‘Schwedleri’.

As universal as Latin names should be, a few sometimes get changed. This can be confusing, and causes some plants to become known more commonly by either their new or old name, as well as the other name as a ‘synonym’. For example, Dietes bicolor and Morea bicolor are the same plant; but not many know for certain which name is more correct. It is like when Datsun became Nissan, but was also known as Datsun for many years afterward.

Nomenclature Was Designed For Simplicity

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.

Nomenclature Is More Than Botanical

90515thumbSimply put, ‘nomenclature’ is how things get named. It is not exactly like naming a child or a dog, or even a new small country in the South Pacific. There is a certain technique to it that is more like naming cars. Well, it ‘was’ like naming cars, a long time ago when cars had simple names rather than numbers and letters. Coincidentally, nomenclature of plants is getting to be just as confusing.

Plants and other biological organisms are assigned Latin names, which for plants, are also known as botanical names. These names are universal, for everyone, everywhere in the World. Almost all plants also have common names that are more or less regional. That is why what is known as Norway maple here is known as sycamore in England, but both are Acer platanoides everywhere.

The first part of a Latin name designates the ‘genus’, which is the more ‘general’ of the two parts of the name. (genus = general) For example, all true maples, including those that are known as sycamores in England, are within the same genus of ‘Acer‘. Genus names are like ‘Buick’, ‘Oldsmobile’ and ‘Pontiac’ for cars. They distinguish a general group, but are no more specific than that.

The second part of a Latin name designates the ‘species’ which is the more ‘specific’ of the two parts of the name (species = specific) For example, within the genus off Acer, the Norway maple is designated as Acer platanoides. Species names are like ‘Electra’, ‘Riviera’ and ‘Skylark’ for cars. They designate specific cars within the big general group that is collectively known as ‘Buick’.

There are of course more general and more specific classifications as well. Just as Buick, Olsmobile and Pontiac are within the group known as General Motors, the genus of Acer is within the family known as Sapindaceae along with Aesculus (horse chestnut) and Litchi (Lychee). ‘Schwedleri’ is a cultivar (cultivated variety) of Acer platanoides, just as some Buick Electra are ‘Limited’.

Incidentally, rules of proper nomenclature dictate that Latin names are italicized, and that the genus name is capitalized, while the species name is not.

Automotive Horticulture

P70929The nomenclature of horticulture, or the ‘naming’ of plants, is very similar to that of automobiles. All those confusing Latin names work just like the names of cars, with species, genus and even family. The Electra is made by Buick, which is a subsidiary of General Motors. I write an article about this every so often. It probably made more sense back many years ago, when both cars and plants were simpler.

Nowadays, it is difficult to distinguish between the different kinds of cars. There are so many different kinds, and they all look so similar. Buicks are not nearly as stylish and distinctive as they once were, and do not look much better than a well outfitted Honda! Cadillac and Lincoln make station wagons, which are now known as SUVs; and they even made pickups! Many cars have one name on the outside, and another, or a few on the inside. A Chrysler might be made by Mercedes Benz, with a Japanese engine! Many cars that had been ‘imports’ are make locally. There are so many different models that some do not even get names. They just get numbers. What is the point of trying to keep track of them all?

Plants have done the same. So many of the reliable and standard specie that had been around until the 80s have been replaced by too many modern cultivars and hybrids to count. Some have been hybridized so extensively between different specie of the same genus that they are not even assigned a specie name! They are merely known by their cultivar name. For example, Grevillea ‘Peaches and Cream’ lacks a species name because no one know who the parents were. (It might be a Grevillea banksii X Greillea bipinnatifida hybrid. See the article about it at What is the point of using standardized nomenclature without the standards? This is not like Madonna or Cher, who do not need last names because they are so unique. Plants need their names more than before because there are so many new ones.

Cars have been improved in the most important ways. They are much safer than older cars. They are also much more efficient and remarkably more durable. The main problem with these improvements is that cars are so difficult to maintain for those who are not professional automotive technicians. Those of us who were inclined to maintain our own vehicles years ago must now take them to mechanics. Although vehicles are designed to need much less maintenance and to last longer, they eventually need to be replaced when maintenance is no longer practical. They are not as sustainable as old cars that can sometimes be repaired with part found in a common hardware store.

Plants have likewise been improved to do what we want them to do better. Foliage is better and more resilient, and in some cases, more colorful. Flowers are more abundant, more colorful, and last longer. Whatever plants were supposed to do before, many do better now. The main problem with all the breeding and hybridizing necessary for these unnatural improvements is that it interferes with what plants need to do naturally. Some are not able to produce viable seed, (although this is an advantage for potentially invasive plants). Others are genetically weak, and therefore more susceptible to disease and insect infestation. Perennials that once perpetuated themselves indefinitely now die out in only a few years. Plants that were once easy to propagate are now not so cooperative. Like modern cars, plants can not be maintained as long as they once were, so need to be replaced instead of sustained.