Is Linnaeus turning in his grave?

A couple of weeks ago I innocently put the up-dated name of Jacobaea maritima In my post about the slope on Thursday. Kris of Late to the Garden Party commented that she hadn’t realised that the name had been changed and that it was becoming more and more difficult to keep up with all the name changes that are occurring and that she was considering returning to using common names so that everyone would know which plant was being described. I hadn’t known the name had changed either but has looked it up to check the spelling, it was then I saw that its name has changed completely.

Rain soaked foliage of Seneccio

Rain soaked foliage of Seneccio

That was how I captioned the image but no, I was wrong it should now be Jacobaea maritima.

Of course we can’t return to common names where even within a few miles the identical plant can be known by a different name, not to mention all the many different names used in all the countries of the world.

How did the system we have now begin? Carolus Linnaeus, known as the father of taxonomy, devised the system of classifying and naming every organism.  He developed a hierarchical system of classification of nature.  Today, this system includes eight taxa: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.  What we use as the Latin name are the last two – the genus and the species; garden plants which are hybrids have the addition name added with capital letters.  E.G. Choisya ternata ‘Aztec Pearl’ Where Choisya is the genus, ternata the species and the hybrid name is ‘Aztec Pearl’.  Checking on this, even this has changed – have a look for yourself at just how complicated it is becoming to write about plants.  Look up a plant you are familiar with and check its name – has it changed?

However it seems to me that Linnaeus’ aim was to have a definitive name for every organism which was decided upon after examining every species and classifying it precisely. The two word Latin name would mean that everyone everywhere would know precisely what plant was being referred to.  For many years the names remained the same and if you were interested in plants you learned the Latin name and even if some were difficult to pronounce or spell it was worthwhile making the effort so that you could always be sure that you could communicate clearly.  With all the changes that have been caused, in the first place, by better methods of examining the plants and, more recently, by the use of genetic profiling it is becoming almost impossible for the non-expert to keep up with these changes.

I wonder if we haven’t reached a point where every plant should be re-examined and the system revised completely at which point the use of Latin as the basis for the names might also be reconsidered.

I know others have strong feelings about this subject and that Louise (Welly Woman) and Chloris at The Blooming Garden will also be writing posts about this subject this week.  Do read their posts and let us all know what you think.

Should we stick to the names we have always known and add a third word to the name if it needs to be changed?  Should the system be revised completely? Do you mind when the names change or doesn’t it worry you.  Changing names on digital documents is relatively easy but what about all the books out there? What do you think?

58 thoughts on “Is Linnaeus turning in his grave?

  1. Language changes over years and generations, as does the way of looking at the world, so why not plant names too? It IS annoying, and I do tend to rebel and use the old names I know, but if it helps science to recategorize certain plants and give them a new botanical name (not always Latin I might add) for clarity then perhaps we should see it as progress! I shall look out for those other posts you mentioned coming up.

    • If they actually rename everything using the DNA profile, the names should last for a considerable time until, of course, the scientists find some other way to categorise them! Now with the Internet maybe all the plants with photographs could be listed in one place with the reasons for the names, which would help anyone who is very interested understand.

  2. I think Linnaeus would be very happy to see that his system of classification is being continued and he would love to use DNA profiling for some “tricky” plants that were difficult to classify using conventional plant taxonomy methods. We will just have to get used to the name changes and leave the decisions to the taxonomists for a global agreement. I just wish the Latin names were used more widely in France. I feel I am regarded as pompous if I use the Latin name even although some garden plants do not have common names as they are not native or common. Amelia

    • It isn’t that I mind the changes, just that some plants have changed more than once in the last few years. I do agree that common names are hopeless, as I said in the post some common names are only relevant for a very small area. Here there is a small town about 5 miles away that even calls a tree by a different name than here!

  3. Thanks for starting this debate with a great post Christina. I hope lots of people will join in. I am glad you agree that using common names is hopeless if we all want to know which plant we are talking about. As promised, I have posted today on this subject.

  4. I love the romance of the folk names for plants and often use both Latin and common names if I know them. I’m not opposed to the botanical names changing as we learn more, but I feel it should be permissible to use either the old botanical name or the more recent one. It isn’t as if the old names are reused for other plants.

    The aim for most gardeners who don’t see themselves as scientists is simply to explain to others exactly what plant we mean. Provided we don’t reprove each other if we use an outdated name, any name that can help others understand what we mean should be fine. The latest names would gradually become the ones new gardeners use and the old names would gradually be forgotten. That’s how language works for other subjects. And a plant name synonym library would be useful if one doesn’t already exist – ideally maintained and updated by the community that approves the official names changing!

    • Sorry, rereading the comments I realise I did respond to your excellent points. You are quite right that if we use the “old” Latin name most people will understand what we are talking about. Matt left a link to an excellent site run by Kew Gardens and an American university. this might be the answer to what we need.

  5. I’m for more Latin so that we all know what we are talking about. I get ridiculed by my neighbours for using Latin names, but I don’t care! Also names are pronounced differently in different countries. My sons Mother in Law from Moldova saw a Fuchsia in our garden here when she came to visit, she pronounced it ” Fooksia ” as it should be, because it was named after Dr. Fuchs, not ” Fusha” as we do!

    • Italians pronounce all the Latin names as if they were Italians so sometimes I don’t recognise what they are saying! They pronounce Fuchsia as your friend does, because “ch” is pronounced “k” in Italian.

      • as a longtime professional garden writer from mississippi – rural southeast US – i can identify with being derided for using “different” names for common plants… but it is the way i communicate with my local audience. when i write for national publications i have to be more specific, and even then often have to choose between the correct and the MORE correct.

        i agree with susurrus in that names will change gradually if needed. communication trumps narrow-minded correctness. lighten up, folks!

        • I think you misunderstand. I have always happy to use the Latin name or scientific name as it is perhaps more correctly called in Italy. I was questioning the need for a rethinking of the method of alerting gardeners and bloggers to the updated names. We want to communicate and know which plant we are describing.

      • i agree with you wholeheartedly! it is pretty frustrating, this correct name thing. i live in england part of the year, and have lectured in italy, and believe me, with my thick mississippi accent, not only do NAMES of plants vary, but also how we SAY them!

        great conversation you have going here, with a lot of thoughtful posts!

        • When I first moved to Italy I thought it would be easy to converse with Italians because of the Latin names but as you say the pronunciation is entirely different so it was like learning a new language for the Latin names too!

  6. A college friend of mine is a botanist at Oregon State University (she heads up the Oregon Flora Project–check it out; very interesting), but I’ve teased her about the capricious (seemingly to me, anyway) taxonomic changes made by botanists. She rolls her eyes and says, “Yeah. We do that.” I still think it’s important for gardeners (generally) and garden bloggers (specifically) to use the Latin names for plants. Common names, though poetic and often charming, are too regional and colloquial to be of much use. Let’s face it: with the Internet so easily available, it’s just not that difficult to check and double-check a name–there are many excellent resources available. Glad you’ve addressed this.

  7. I think in the US the standard approach is to use the most widely known common name and then the Latin name in parentheses. I’ve tried to do that in my own blog. It would be wonderful if we could do away with the Latin names altogether, but then we would all have to agree on which common name is the right one. I do get exasperated by the name changes, but simply struggle to adapt to the new ones. i’m afraid we had better get used to learning new genus names, as they will be coming at us faster with advances in genetic science.

    • Sadly I think there is no space for common names, there are just too many for each plant, even in one Language like English. I would like that the “new” names be the permanent names. It is not that I’m not prepared to try to keep up, but not everyone has the motivation. We need to ALL be using the correct name, that is the whole point surely.

      • Even among enthusiastic amateur gardeners here, the number of people who learn the Latin names is quite tiny. So if you want your fellow gardeners who may be neighbors or friends to understand what you are talking about, you have to use the common names. Perhaps this is less true in Europe.

        • In the UK keen gardeners do usually try to learn the Latin names, I can’t speak for all of Europe, in Italy there aren’t many gardeners at all and very few people know any names at all, common or Latin!

      • Just to comment on what Jason wrote, in Germany it is also rare for people to know or use the botanical names, and I notice so many differences between American and British common names that I need to resort to the Latin for help!

  8. Science is always moving forward. Sometimes science is built on what we already know…sometimes new things are discovered…and sometimes, we discover what we thought we knew is actually wrong. I’m okay with moving forward…in learning and life.

  9. This will prove to be an intriguing discussion with many different views. I certainly agree with Susurus that ‘provided we don’t reprove each other if we use an outdated name, any name that can help others understand what we mean should be fine’ – for people to be ridiculed like Pauline was is such a shame. I suppose I have always used the ‘proper’ names as far as possible, but probably because that’s what my mother did – like anything we are interested in our knowledge of plant names can be vast, and spouting them is not showing off but just something we do without thinking. I do appreciate that there is a difference between those of us who are enthusiastic amateurs and a more scientific fraternity who are concerned that any reclassification should be done properly and not in an ad hoc way.

    • Yes, we should never reprove anyone foe using a Latin name even if we make an error and use an older one! The only way we can learn about plant performance unless we all know which plant we’re talking about.

  10. It is all getting very confusing. I would support using the technology we now have to accurately classify plants and agree that we should be using a common language, i.e. the Latin names. It’s just hard to keep up. I use the RHS as a reference site and hope they are keeping themselves up to date!

    • The RHS would be a good arbiter but even they don’t have every plant on their website. They are an authority of plants that grow here but the British can’t claim ownership of every plant in the world.

  11. for our indigenous plants I go to PlantZAfrica which is hosted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute. I can count on finding the most recent name (if it is a plant in their growing database)
    We can’t wait until all the plants have been renamed … it is constant ongoing research. Who can know how long it will take?
    My biggest issue with renaming is the iconic thorn trees of Africa. They were called Acacia (mimosa in France is the Australian species). But the Australians have claimed Acacia for theirs, and we are having to rename our acacias. Not happy. For the rest, yes I understand why names change, and I work at keeping up.
    It is much easier with online resources, books are locked in their own past time.

  12. I understand your point of view Christina but also realise that botanists need to reclassify when new information is discovered. One frustration of researching plant names on the internet instead of books is the sheer amount of mis named plants by well meaning folk with a photograph of something that isn’t what its labelled as. I agree too with Cathy and Susurrus. I also remember a couple of years ago the utter frustration of researching Italian wildflower websites written in Italian rather than a universal Botanical name and trying to identify the caper flower only to finally find the correct answer on your blog. The RHS site is my go to site to double check Botanical names now but often find the photographs annoyingly sparse and for many new cultivars just one or two words rather than detailed information to help with identification. Hopefully with enough demand and interest and posts like yours we will push for greater clarity, although the RHS is a charity and for a world wide plant data base with universal botanical names and detailed information that would need some serious funding.

    • I suppose Kew Gardens may be the correct “go to” place for a world-wide database, but it is likely that they don’t have photographs for garden cultivars, which, as gardeners, is what we need. The comments for this post have been very interesting. I’m travelling so I haven’t yet read all the comments on Chloris’s post.

      • I wrote my reply late at night to you, then absolutely kicked myself for not including the Caper’s botanical name which I learned from your blog Capparis spinosa. My badly worded point on that was about the photographs and trying to correctly identify, which for me is the point of sharing any botanical or common name. I actually didn’t know the common or botanical name for that beautiful plant which we had seen on holiday in Italy. My other thought is that some time ago I had to sit weekly RHS plant ident tests, full name genus, species, cultivar if applicable and no spelling errors. One lad on the course was dyslexic and although he was excellent at recognising every plant and its needs, found the spelling side very difficult, had he been allowed common names it may have been easier. I haven’t investigated the Kew site but will definitely look into that.

        • I don’t want to confuse you, I only believe the Kew site should be good, I haven’t used it myself. I’m so glad I was able to help you with the ID of the caper plant. It is never easy trying to identify a plant, especially when it isn’t flowering, that’s where the Internet can be helpful by showing lots of images of the same thing, but as you say many sites have the plants miss-named which doesn’t help at all.

  13. I am lazy about using the Latin names as I learned the common names first. So I am learning backwards and try to add the Latin names more in posts especially since many people only use Latin names and I get lost….but with all the changes, it is confusing and especially with books that don’t have the latest name changes….and then there isn’t much published when they change it all….it would be nice if there was a clearinghouse for all this so we could check in and learn more about changes etc….

    • Some kind of official “go to” web site is an excellent idea. I am beginning to realise that there will need to be a follow up post, trying to summarise all the good ideas and everyone’s feelings. This is actually such an important subject, I would like the as many people as possible should know about gardener’s concerns.

  14. I think it is important to have the Latin names because they carry so much information about the nature of the plant and its relationship to others. As you note, this is why Linnaeus developed his system. At the same time, it does seem like changes may be made too rapidly and with insufficient data? I’m not a botanist, but I can easily imagine that what is an informative and enjoyable scientific debate in the botany community, might be translated into “official” name changes a little too soon, leading to a need for rapid corrections. As for me, I try to be reasonably up-to-date, but I admit that I don’t go out of my way to catch all the new names immediately these days!

  15. I was joking about returning to common names as I know they create their own kind of confusion but I do find the frequency with which plant names change quite frustrating, especially as I seldom see any explanation for the rationale that might help cement the new botanical name in my brain. I usually use the “proper” name of the plant – at least to the extent that I know it – in my posts but will often add the common name in the interest of helping readers identify it. Identifying which proper name is currently accepted also can be difficult to determine. Frankly, I’m still not clear as to whether the proper name of what is commonly known here in the US as “Mexican feather grass” is Stipa tenuissima or Nasella tenuissima as I continue to see reputable sources use both. And even reputable nurseries frequently use outdated terminology. In one case a nursery listed a plant under one name,subsequently changed the classification while noting the name change, only to later change the name back to the original citation without any explanation whatsoever.

  16. very interesting post Christina, thanks for explaining how the Latin names came about, I am very much the amateur and struggled to learn the Latin name of plants I have bought but became disillusioned when I’d learn a name only to find soon after that that was the old name and it is now called something else, it’s is all very confusing to the lay person, Frances

  17. I’ve just been thinking that I ought to get new plant encyclopedia as so much has changed over the past years and they happen to be expensive too. I don’t think there’s a way around Latin names and surely one couldn’t revise the whole lot as new discoveries are made every day and we have to adept to keep up. I think of it as a way to train my brain and that helps me get over it.

  18. Well, you’ve certainly made me recognise that I have become completely dilatory about my name usage ,never checking anything. I can see that that is really very unhelpful and careless and it’s time to put my back into it! I should think a central up to date website would bump straight into the problem of financing it. Don’t I remember that there was a scandal about the withdrawal of all botany courses in the UK a year or two ago? I have no idea how that connects with the avalanche of new classifications. Very interesting post, thank you

  19. When phoning tech support for computer-based problems, it is frustrating if the person helping will not recognize plain English as you attempt to explain the problem or use it to help you troubleshoot. It must be similarly frustrating for ordinary folks to communicate with dedicated, Latin speaking gardeners. I think it all depends on your audience when talking about plants. I get a kick out of Latin names (with Annette, viewing it as brain training) but think it best reserved for conversations with fellow plant geeks or tracking down a specific plant for the garden.

    • Bloggers more than others, perhaps, need to be clear about which plant they are referring to, which means it has to be the Latin name. It isn’t as if the common names are consistent and even in English one plant may have many names and a single name can refer to several completely different plants. Btw I couldn’t see a place to comment on your clever vase yesterday, it might be because I’m using my iPad rather than laptop at the moment.

  20. This is always such a great topic! I always use the Latin and then the common name, but it can be trying.
    In the index card system that is my brain, I have sometimes filed plants away by their Latin name (thereby completely forgetting the common name) or by the common name, only to stumble and stammer on the actual Latin, so it will go along the lines of “Abies something-or-another” in speech, or “Abies sp.” if I have to write it down!
    That said, I always spare a thought for gardeners in Asia – after all, about 50% of all garden plants originate from this part of the world. They have to learn another character system as well as another language when describing plants.
    Given the use of DNA, I guess the pace of reclassification is faster now than in the past.
    At some point it will slow down, meaning that the binomial system will work just fine once more.
    If I need to make sure that a plant name is still correct, I find that using will give me reasonably up-to-date information.
    This is typically one of the tools in use by most professionals in the industry (and even though it is anglo-centric, the contributions are world-wide), so is reasonably assured at being up-to-date as well as tracking changes to the nomenclature.

    • Thanks for the link, I’m going to save that somewhere safe! I have the added problem living in Italy that the few gardeners that use the Latin name pronounce them as if they were Italian, which can sound so different that I don’t recognise it immediately. Thanks for your input into this subject.

  21. Being a relative newcomer to gardening I find I am more familiar with the Latin names rather than the common ones. I often have to use good old Google when I come across a common name for a plant.
    When I first started blogging I used the Latin names but found increasing numbers of bloggers that did not. I began to feel a bit embarrassed for using Latin names. I asked the question Latin or common names back then with mixed replies. I stuck with what my head was telling me and continue to use the Latin names.
    Only today, a comment on my blog re a Mahonia had me looking for a bit more information on where they would grow. guess what… It appears that some folks (whoever they may be) wants it reclassified as a Berberis as several species in these genera hybridise. What then does that make my Mahoberberis shrub? 🙂 which in itself I suppose explains the thinking!

  22. Some really interesting points. Great to hear what others think. The problem with just using Latin names is that some plants are just too well know by their common name. And when we’re talking in a conversational way it’s much more natural to say primrose or forget-me-not rather than Primula vulgaris or Myosostis sylvatica. Even in books you want them to be accessible to as many as possible. I would have found it odd when writing my book to write Lathyrus odoratus every time when I was writing about sweet peas. For me it very much depends on the circumstances. As for name changes it’s inevitable but I think the new names need to adopted as quickly as possible by the horticultural industry and us gardeners.

  23. Ugh, I have to admit, I wish the names and classification were not so closely linked, but that’s a necessary evil I guess. I like the idea of adding a third name. I think that splitters should be banned from the profession. lol I’m still annoyed that asters were split up and given impossible names.

  24. Most people I know are clueless when it comes to botanical names and always use common names, but that can be very confusing. When someone asks me about “snowball bush,” I have no idea which one that person is asking about. Latin names are much better, if only everyone knew them.That will never happen, but I wish that all nurseries, at least, would use them. Here, many don’t. I tend to use a combination of latin/common names on my blog. As for changing botanical names, I guess that is inevitable and is ultimately a good thing.

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