Plant guidebooks and taxonomy

John Bryan
Sat, 05 Jul 2003 10:07:34 PDT
Dear Rachel:
I find flowering by month not a bad thing, one can always go a month
forward or back depending on the season. Jane's point, grouping by
color, is much more difficult to deal with. Cheers, John E. Bryan

Rachel Saunders wrote:
> Dear Jane
> Another hate in flower guides:  some of our flower guides in South Africa
> are arranged by the month in which the plants flower.  That to me is the
> worst of all.
> Regards
> Rachel Saunders
> Cape Town
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: Jane McGary <>
> To: Pacific Bulb Society <>
> Sent: Thursday, July 03, 2003 8:17 PM
> Subject: [pbs] Plant guidebooks and taxonomy
> > In a recent posting on "Taxonomic changes," Mary Sue Ittner wrote:
> > "...a friend who is rewriting a book identifying local flora ... has
> always
> > divided the book by families and was distressed about all the changes
> she'd
> > have to make in the revision and was also wondering what the common names
> > were for the new families since she had labeled the family names by their
> > common names, not their scientific names, just as she describes the plants
> > by their common names although in this case she adds the scientific name
> in
> > small type below. I told her the public who uses her book looks at her
> > drawings and pays little attention to the families and appreciates that
> she
> > has divided it by color of the flowers. ... But she still wants to arrange
> > it in "the correct way." In the front of her book she has a key to the
> > families and if she continues it in the revision I can see how she might
> > struggle a bit to make everything fit."
> >
> > As an editor of reference books, I think about these matters a lot as I
> use
> > plant manuals. Some thoughts:
> >
> > 1. I can't stand plant books arranged by flower color. First, the flowers
> > may not be present when you're looking at the plant, though you might be
> > able to identify it by the capsules or some other trait. Second, some
> > species have flowers of various colors, so where do you look for them?
> > Third, this results in genera being split up in various parts of the book,
> > which is utterly maddening. If you want to cater to readers so naive they
> > can't guess at a genus or even family, put in an appendix on flower color.
> >
> > 2. For the time being, I think it's best to present families as they
> > existed when many likely users of a given book learned or relearned them
> > (perhaps about 1990 is a good marker), but ALSO to mention recent proposed
> > revisions in a note to the key to families. I've learned the hard way not
> > to try to adapt to every taxonomic revision that appears, because
> sometimes
> > the botanist proposing one has second thoughts later and withdraws or
> > changes his proposal (e.g., Hershkovits's maneuvers around what most of us
> > know as Lewisia tweedyi).
> >
> > 3. I don't think the "common" family names (e.g., lily family, buttercup
> > family for Ranunculaceae) are systematized. For example, what used to be
> > called the Umbelliferae and is now the Apiaceae gets called both the
> > "carrot" and "parsley" family in English. When huge families are broken up
> > (e.g., the former Liliaceae), the spin-off families rarely have handy
> > "common" names anyway. Here I apply my bad-tempered motto: "If you can
> > learn to say 'carburetor', you can learn to say 'Zauschneria'." A word is
> > just a word, no matter how long it is.
> >
> > 4. It's true that it's hard to sell "wildflower" books without putting in
> > "common" names, but the introduction to the book should make it clear that
> > many of these common names have never actually been used in the vernacular
> > language and are, instead, made up by the writers of wildflower books.
> > Nobody else ever called a plant "Howelll's mariposa" or "Five-stamened
> > Mitrewort." People in Native Plant Societies often use these artificial
> > terms, but if you're from another area or not used to this practice, you
> > end up tearing your hair out trying to remember what a "mitrewort" is
> > (Mitella, which is EASIER to say and spell). I will be tearing my hair out
> > next week, no doubt, at the NARGS annual meeting, where the guides will
> > probably trot out these "easy" names.
> >
> > In addition to being a part of the natural sciences, taxonomy is a part of
> > anthropology and linguistics, and also of philosophy. Because most of us
> > (the ones without pocket DNA sequencers) approach it from a macro and
> > linguistic standpoint, we inevitably encounter confusing areas and
> > sometimes feel that we are being carried along helplessly on a flood of
> > ever-changing information. The only response for the non-botanists among
> > us, I think, is to make it clear what framework we are using in what we
> > write, acknowledge alternatives of which we may be aware, and try not to
> be
> > too anxious.
> >
> > Jane McGary
> > Northwestern Oregon
> >
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> >
> >
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