Plant guidebooks and taxonomy

Jane McGary
Thu, 03 Jul 2003 11:17:24 PDT
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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