Botanists Loosen Rules On Latin Plant Descriptions

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Botanists of the International Botanical Congress (IBC) have dropped the requirement that newly discovered species be described in Latin, offering the option to use English or Latin descriptions instead, The Washington Post reports. These changes to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature went into effect on January 1.

“The part that is being relaxed is the Latin description, which is likely a good thing,” says Allan Armitage, Greenhouse Grower columnist and University of Georgia professor. “All plants will still require a Latin binomial to appear in the literature.” Read more about what Armitage thinks about Latin names in his column Common Names: Making Gardening Accessible.

The reason for the switch is because of bottlenecks in getting new plants named and introduced. From the commercial perspective, this move doesn’t change much for day-to-day operations, but the Latin versus common plant name conundrum lives on.

The industry sees pros and cons to the new changes.

“My fear is that ‘dumbing’ down the taxonomic names is going to result in confusion for growers who are like me and the consumer that is going to come running in and say they want an ‘umbrella tree,’” says Denise Schreiber, columnist at North Hills Monthly Magazine. “To me that is Sciadoptys verticillata but it could also be Magnolia tripetala. Common names from different parts of the country already make us crazy and I think in the long run this will contribute to that problem.”

These changes, however, will help the process of introducing new species, says Jared Barnes, garden writer and lecturer with Harvest and Snow.

“Now, plant discoverers no longer have to go through the arduous task of converting the English descriptions into Latin,” Barnes says. “And, if the descriptions are in English, then introducing the species to horticulturists/industry professionals will be less intimidating; the change has the potential to ease communication between botanists and the hort industry.

“However, as the article pointed out, Latin was once the gatekeeper for newly introduced species because only a few people are fluent in it,” Barnes continues. “Now, we have the potential of people introducing new species for their own personal gain. I could also see where the same species would be introduced. Overall, I think the change can encourage a better relationship with botanists and horticulturists, and that’s always a plus.”

What do you think? Tell us in the comments below.

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2 comments on “Botanists Loosen Rules On Latin Plant Descriptions

  1. Derek Burch

    I am very sorry that you printed this since it is clear that few people outside the botanical world have any idea about botanical names, and you have generated completely unnecessary concern. It really shouldn't lead to people publishing names for their own profit, given how unpopular scientific names are, and it will have absolutely no effect whatsoever on the relation of common names to botanical names. Umbrella trees will always be one thing to one person and (possibly) another to someone else no matter now the botanical names came to be. Everyone in the industry, please relax. Nothing has really changed for you, and botanists still love you and are willing for you to continue the common name use and possible confusion as long as it remains what you want to do. But please don't think of the situation as common VERSUS latin names. there is already enough real conflict in the world without listening to the journalists with no knowledge of botany who needed a topic for their column on a wintery day.

  2. Dr Keith Hammett

    The article is badly written as it confuses and conflates the question of Latin descriptions and Latin names. Latin names are essential to avoid confusion and are a world wide standard. I am always amazed that people who speak Latin based languages and use the Roman alphabet claim difficulty with Latin names, yet expect people who speak oriental and other quite different languages to adhere to the standard. The precise description of each species has traditionally been in Latin as until last century Latin was the Lingua Franca of academia. Now English has assumed that role. In practice each author of a new species has had to get his or her description translated into Latin, but the number of people learning Latin has diminished. Realistically, the Latin description is mainly of concern only to botanists and it is frequently accompanied by an English version anyhow. The important thing is for horticulturists to use correct Latin names.