Is taxonomy a dictator, or a useful tool? (rant)
Tue, 16 Dec 2003 13:49:29 PST

Concerning Ipheion vittatum, an earlier posting pointed out that, “When first noticed in 1879, this charming plant was placed in the genus Milla; in 1896 it was moved  to Brodiaea, in 1943 to Beauverdia, in 1953 to Iphieion, in 1963 to Tristagma and into Nothoscordium in 1968.  Is it any wonder that botanists get a bad name among gardeners?”

I can’t claim to know the correct placement of Ipheion vittatum, but the posting brings up an interesting point about plant taxonomy, a point that is sometimes forgotten.  Valid (and invalid) plant names last forever.  A nice example is described in the electronic code of the ICBN (See Link below).  It is stated, “Picea excelsa Link (1841) is illegitimate because it is based on Pinus excelsa Lam. (1778), a superfluous name for Pinus abies L. (1753). Under Picea the correct name is Picea abies (L.) H. Karst. (1881).

Aside from the overt (if confusing) meaning of the text the underlying meaning is that a writer in 2003 can still use the term “Pinus excelsa Lam. (1778)” and be “technically” correct.  The use of the full name means only that you are referring to the tree that Lamark was referring to.  Use of the phrase in no way ties you down as to whether or not it is a Pinus or Picea.  Today we know that Picea (spruces) are clearly different from Pinus (pines), and most folks refer to Norway pine as Pinus excelsa L.  But that particular tree species has had a lot of names over time (Abies excelsa, De Candolle; Pinus excelsa, Lamarck; Picea excelsa, Link; Pinus Picea, Du Roi; Pinus Abies, Linné.).  You can go ahead and use all the names, just so long as you are communicating clearly.  

An earlier poster noted that it doesn’t matter how you pronounce Latin as long as you are able to communicate with others.  Similarly, it doesn’t matter if you call it Ipheion vittatum, or Milla vittatum, etc., as long as you are able to communicate with others.  It is not a matter of “right” and “not right,” for it is quite possible that a new name will be proposed if you wait long enough.  

For my part, I like plant taxonomy and try to keep abreast of it especially as it can help me understand phylogeny.  Nonetheless, I do know that taxonomy can become a cruel and dictatorial master, so I don't give it too much respect even while I use it to communicate with you all.    

LINK:  ICBN reference on Web… 


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