Plant guidebooks and taxonomy

diana chapman
Fri, 04 Jul 2003 07:45:42 PDT
Hi Jane:'

A great posting!!!  In addition to the absurdity of using "common" names
that have never been used, the Peterson Field Guide to the Pacific States
wildflowers also lists the flowers by color, and the writer must have been
color-blind, since many of the Brodiaeas are listed in the red/pink
category!  Huh?  Jepson, in spite of its natty carrying case, is unusable in
the field, so I'm stuck with using Peterson for trying to identify
unfamiliar native plants accompanied by much gnashing of teeth.  Sometimes I
just give up, and decide I want to enjoy myself.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Jane McGary" <>
To: "Pacific Bulb Society" <>
Sent: Thursday, July 03, 2003 11:17 AM
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
> divided the book by families and was distressed about all the changes
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> too anxious.
> Jane McGary
> Northwestern Oregon
> _______________________________________________
> pbs mailing list

More information about the pbs mailing list