It has come to my attention that my profession isn’t as professional as I would like it to be, or it possibly thinks it is in some aspects of arboriculture. One of these aspects is nomenclature. This issue is no little ‘storm in a tea cup’, during the last few years I have been inundated, ‘flooded’ you could say with scientific (not Latin or botanical names these days) plant, fungi and insect names written incorrectly and spelt incorrectly in learner work and professional reports. Not only that, but common names written incorrectly too! Not only can’t learners get it right but a good number of consultants can’t get it right. So should my profession be getting it right or do we stick our heads in the clouds and say it doesn’t matter in, this, a different ‘age’ of language use (Vote below!). The thing is though, scientific names are never misleading. No matter where you are in the world every plant, for example, has only one correct name, (so long as its taxonomic treatment is not in dispute) one can always recognise it when it is written out. The current rules are followed throughout the world and I don’t think it is up to my/our profession to ignore that and allow protocol to slip down the drain.
How important is the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (Melbourne Code) adopted by the Eighteenth International Botanical Congress Melbourne, Australia, July 2011 and the separate International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. Well, maybe Kew gardens may hold the key to this, they run a one week long course on Botanical Nomenclature led by their garden specialists. This in-depth course teaches the principles of plant nomenclature according to the International Code of Nomenclature (ICN) for algae, fungi and plants. So there you have its importance – hail Kew! There are rules to this code established many moons ago and I don’t see why they should not be adhered to by professionals working with ‘plants’. So don’t give this important matter the ‘cold’ shoulder.
In use the binomial naming system (scientific name), as the name implies, uses two words to name a particular species. (derived from Latin or Greek).
The first word we use to describe a plant is the generic name (genus). The generic name must be capitalized for example Quercus. The second word we use is the specific epithet (species). The specific epithet must be in lower case for example robur. Both words must be emphasized, italicised when typed or underlined if hand written. After that cultivar names are not latin and therefore are not italicised for example, Quercus robur ‘Fastigiata’. With varieties Pinus nigra var. nigra – var is not italicised as it is not latin. No winds of change here then.
Common names are written in lower case unless at the start of a sentence or the name reflects a place or a proper noun for example London plane, Norway maple, Scots pine and English oak. However, common names can be confusing; a plane tree in England can be known as an American sycamore in the USA. The name sycamore actually derives from the Greek language συκόμορος (sūkomoros) meaning fig-mulberry (Ficus sycomorus) this is also sometimes called the sycamore fig. As confusing as the jet stream positions!
Now the mist has lifted on this topic we are just as well to know of the origin of nomenclature. It is early 17th century: from French and from Latin nomenclatura, from nomen ‘name’ + clatura ‘calling, summoning’ (from calare ‘to call’). A Nomenclator in Rome was the title of a steward whose job it was to announce visitors. The current system of using Latin to name biological organisms was developed by Carl von Linne (1707-1778), more commonly known by his pen name Linnaeus, about 250 years ago. Simply a ‘system of naming’. Linnaeus was the son of a curate and grew up in Småland, a poor region in southern Sweden and the binomial system was his lasting achievement. Binomial names were used consistently in print by Linnaeus only after the publication of the Species Plantarum in 1753.
NB. Many of us, including me, would refer to the species name as the species. Technically this is incorrect, the species name, for example, robur is the specific epithet, and Quercus robur is the species. This explains why we refer all the time to species of trees as opposed to genera of trees – now the dark clouds roll away!
Just another thought on aspects that people routinely get wrong – the abbreviations. Sp. is the abbreviation when referring to a single tree of unknown species. Spp. is the plural version and Ssp. is the abbreviation for sub-species. None of which should be italicised.
Also, sometimes in more advanced botanical writings you might come across a letter, name or abbreviation after the binomial for a species. An example would be Allium cepa L. (Allium cepa L. is the common table onion.) What does the “L.” stand for? The “L.” stands for the authority, i.e., the individual credited with assigning the binomial to the species. In this case, “L.” stands for Linnaeus. Well, when you start pumping the available research it never rains but it pours in more technicalities for a ‘simple’ system of naming! Brings tears to your eyes it does! Onion, Ok you are still with it.
As you the learners have found out Andy and I get a bit frosty when it comes to having names written correctly. High pressure? quite rightly so, at level 6 in particular! If professionals can’t get it right, who can? We should all be on a crusade to improve our fellow professionals’ presentation of plant names. The reward is that elusive pot of gold, self-esteem and satisfaction and of being a professional and of doing an excellent job.
Don’t forget to add in those little indicators x and + signs in the right place that say so much in recognition of hybrids!
One final pointer – almost everyone routinely uses a first column heading on a survey or inspection form containing the word SPECIES – but if one then only uses common names and just writes oak or cherry – that ain’t a species – it’s a genus! How’s that for a whirlwind finish?
Feel free to comment below too!