Freesia laxa 'Joan Evans'

Jim McKenney
Wed, 07 Dec 2011 10:40:14 PST
These questions about the proper names for plants are often a reflection of the sloppy way we use plant names. For instance, the English word variety is used in several disparate senses: 

1) sometimes it is used as the translation of the rank varietas of formal botanical nomenclature, 

2) sometimes it is used to describe new vegetable varieties grown annually from seed, 

3) sometimes it is used to name a clonally distinct novelty raised from seed, 

4) sometimes it is used to name a somatic sport which has arisen among clonally propagated material. 

5) and among other uses it is sometimes used to mean a mix. 

In cases where the botanical rankvarietas is being applied properly - i.e. to a sexually reproducing population - then it is entirely proper to use the same name for seedlings produced in cultivation which result from cross pollination of plants of the varietas in question. In cases where the botanical rank varietas is being applied improperly -i.e. to a naturally occurring clone - then application of the same name is improper because any seedlings will be clonally distinct and will have a parentage different than the parentage of the plant given the varietas name (because that plant cannot be its own parent). But there is one exception to this: see "In the case of seedlings from clonally distinct novelties" below.

In the case of vegetable varieties grown from seed, no one seems to seriously challenge the use of the same names human generation after human generation, although these plants are typically grown from open pollinated seed. The Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind was a sensation during the middle of the nineteenth century; there is still a muskmelon making the rounds with that name. Are we to really believe that for over a century growers have been carefully hand pollinating these to ensure purity of the strain? 

In the case of seedlings from clonally distinct novelties themselves raised from seed, it's tempting to join voices with those who boldly assert that seedlings of such plants should never be given the name of the female parent. But, in the case of plants which produce  parthenocarpic seed, any seedlings and the parental plant form a clone, and thus can properly be designated by the same name.

In the case of somatic sports which arise from clonally propagated material, it gets weirder. Such sports (and any other sports which arise from the same plant) and the plant from which they are derived form a clone because they are all derived from one original seedling.  Yet for purposes of commerce and other uses, we insist that such variations have a separate name, and they are typically regarded as separate "clones". That not only makes a metonym of the original concept of clone, but it also sets a basis for more confusion. For instance, let's say that a clonal variety of plant is being raised in one country for a drug extracted from its leaves, and somatic mutations result in forms with greater or lesser amounts of the drug in question, and these somatic mutations are then propagated separately. Let's also say that at the same time in another country the same clonal variety of plant is being raised for its flowers, and that somatic mutations
 result in forms with several flower colors and these are propagated separately for commercial purposes. Since, unbeknownst to the flower growers,  similar somatic mutations for drug level are probably occurring among their own plants and at the same time similar somatic mutations for flower color are probably occurring in the plants being grown for drug production. there is bound to be real confusion when those growing for the drug encounter the work of those growing for flower color: it seems unlikely that these "clones" established within an existing clone will match up.   

All of this is much more than most gardeners want to know about their plants, and much more than most catalog writers want to include in the plant description. 

This has taught me two things: for one,  while I find taxonomy enormously interesting, it's also evident to me that it is more and more often unstable, unreliable and eventually confusing. As a result, I no longer regard the "name" as the single most important bit of data for my uses; I no longer accession plants by name (although I do keep careful track of the "as acquired" names. For my uses the accession number has supplanted the "name" as the most important bit of data.  For another, with respect to plants in the wild, I think the most important thing to know about them is precisely where they grow: collected material without locality data is fine for gardens, but of very dubious value for serious taxonomic work. 

So we agree to muddle along, right?

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.03871º North, 77.09829º West, USDA zone
My Virtual Maryland Garden
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin /<> 
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