Dammit! Why do the names change so much?
Wasn’t using Latin names instead of common names supposed to make life easier: because common names were so inconsistent and different from region to region? Wasn’t it supposed to make it easier to organize the vast array of species in the world into an organized hierarchal order? And while there can be numerous common names for one species of plant, there was supposed to be one botanical name for every plant. Right?
Well, yes and no, and…maybe—but definitely not anymore.
Plant taxonomy has changed because we have discovered more about our world (and ourselves), and because our ability to gather evidence has improved. The latin names of plants are not just there for our convenience. They are there to represent how each species is related, evolutionarily speaking, to the whole. And as we gain more knowledge, the names must change.
One of the technologies that has fueled a lot of reorganization of systematic taxonomy is our ability to analyze genetics, hereditary molecular differences, predominately in DNA sequences, to gain information on an organism's evolutionary relationships. This ability has shed more light on some murky areas of taxonomy. And it has raised new questions too.
We saw a lot of changes around the turn into the 21st century, and it hasn’t quelled. Some of the changes take hold in some places before others. Sometimes even the regional experts are reluctant to adopt the new knowledge. For example, in Arizona we are still calling Arizona cypress Cupressus arizonica, but in California they’ve adopted the change to Hesperocyparis arizonica (new world cypress species show genetic differences from the old world cypress species, demanding a new genus assignment). Here at Spadefoot we try to acquaint ourselves with both new and old names so we can communicate to everyone. The nursery trade is often very slow to adopt new names. A number of years ago we realized that our Acacia species weren’t as close as we thought to Australian Acacias, and that many of our Acacias are not as closely related to each other as we thought. So several species had their names changed: Acacia constricta (white thorn acacia) became Vachellia constricta, Acacia greggii (catclaw acacia) became Senegalia greggii. But so many plant nurseries still call them Acacias because, well, that is what regular people come asking for, and most nurseries aren’t normally run by botanists, they’re run by horticulturists. Horticulturists are generally more concerned with growing (and selling) plants more than with systematic botany.
We understand the need to accommodate the public. But we also see our role as educating, and understanding nature better. So we embrace the changes. On our signs we try to have the most updated names, and we use our interactions with the public to clear up any confusion. Many people don’t care what the new botanical names (or even old botanical names) are. We respect that. Not all of us have the space in our brains for everything. I mean, I don’t have space in my head for many people’s names because of all the botanical names I have to remember, so I get it. Plus, some of those name changes are difficult to pronounce. The name change of seep monkeyflower from Mimilus gutattus to Erythranthe guttata comes to mind.
For those of you that care, we aim to educate you (as we educate ourselves) during this time when so much knowledge is coming down the pipes. Yay science. So don’t be mad when you see a new botanical name. Embrace the changes. Embrace the knowledge.