Plant guidebooks and taxonomy

John Bryan
Sat, 05 Jul 2003 10:04:48 PDT
Dear Jane:
Well stated. Cheers, John E. Bryan

Jane McGary wrote:
> 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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