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Recommended Websites

International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (Tokyo Code) Electronic Version

International Plant Names Index

Nomenclature Resource List

James Reveal's Concordance of Angiosperm Family Names

Information Resources for Plant Identification

International Organization for Plant Information Global Plant Checklist

Flowering Plant Gateway

Index Nominum Supragenericorum Plantarum Vascularium

Taxonomic Literature, 2nd edition (TL-2)

GRIN Taxonomy for Plants

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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Botanical nomenclature

Is there an online resource for tracking updates in plant taxonomy?


You may not be able to find up-to-the-minute, late-breaking changes, but you can search by plant family, genus, or species in the following online resources which are considered authoritative on plants and their scientific names:

1. You can download the USDA's Complete Plant List. You can search for plants by scientific or common name here as well.

2. The GRIN database (also maintained by the USDA) offers several searching options and provides information on changes for each plant retrieved.

3. The International Plant Names Index also allows you to search for plants by scientific name; in addition, you can search for publications.

4. Here are two more name databases for plants in various parts of the world: Multilingual Multiscript Plant Name Database and Flora Europaea.

5. Missouri Botanical Garden's Tropicos website is another source of information on changes to plant names.

6. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew maintains The Plant List: A Working List of All Plant Species.

7. Here are two links to more information about taxonomy.

Kew Gardens has information about why plants change their names.

The Horticultural Taxonomy Group (HORTAX) was set up in 1988, with the objective of providing a forum for taxonomists and horticulturists in the British Isles who have an interest in the taxonomy and nomenclature of cultivated plants.

8. There is a journal called Taxon, available online to subscribers, and available to Miller Library patrons using the library's computers.

Date 2018-10-10
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Perovskia, Lavandula, Botanical nomenclature

I am looking for rare Siberian lavender. Can you help?


I think what you mean is Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia. You might want to phone your favorite retail nursery to see whether they carry it (it is very popular). If it is not available, here are two Oregon nurseries that list it in their current catalogs:

Forestfarm in Williams, OR.
Joy Creek Nursery in Scappoose, OR

The following article from University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana Extension describes the confusion between Russian sage and 'Siberian lavender:'
"To the best of my knowledge, there is no such plant as Siberian Lavender. I have heard of English lavender, French lavender and Spanish lavender. By law all of these offers must list the Latin name of the plant; although sometimes it is in the tiniest of print. Check the ad again and see if you can find the words Perovskia atriplicifolia anywhere in the ad. Russian sage. It is a really fine plant, but it is not lavender. It does not look like lavender and it does not smell like lavender.
Do your homework and read the fine print. I know many people are not familiar with botanical names, but that is the only way to know what you are getting. Once you know the botanical name, even if you cannot pronounce it, you can find information about the plant. Botanical names are unique. Common names can be very misleading. A good example is an ad I saw recently in the newspaper. It was touting the luxurious beauty and fragrance of Siberian lavender. I had never heard of anything called Siberian lavender so I kept reading. The ad stated (with lots of exclamation points) how Siberian lavender produces thousands of flowers and has the delicate scent of lavender perfume year after year. Wow, sounds pretty fantastic. I continued to look to find the botanical name. In the minuscule fine print it said, Variety: perovskia atripliafolia (which I assume to be the misspelling of Perovskia atriplicifolia) also known as Russian sage. Russian sage is a nice perennial plant with silvery white leaves and soft bluish-purple flowers held in loose spikes. However, even from far away on a foggy day I doubt Russian sage would hold even a slight resemblance to lavender. Russian sage does have a fragrance, but it is more reminiscent of sage than of lavender."

Date 2018-06-14
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Anaphalis margaritacea, Plant identification, Compositae (Daisy family), Botanical nomenclature

I am doing some research on daisies. I have had trouble finding out what Amaranth daisy (Pearly Everlasting) looks like, and how to differentiate it from other daisies.


Pearly Everlasting is Anaphalis margaritacea, which is in the plant family Compositae (also called Asteraceae), according to David Mabberley's The Plant-Book (Cambridge University Press, 1997). Below are links to images and information about this plant.

The problem with common names like 'daisy' is that they may refer to a large number of different plants. 'Daisy' can refer to Bellis perennis, Gerbera jamesonii, Olearia species, Chrysanthemum coronarium, Felicia bergeriana, Leucanthemum vulgare, and many other disparate plants.

Below are web links to sites which may help you with plant identification. There are also many good books on the subject, and an excellent starting place is Roger Phillips and Martin Rix's The Botanical Garden (Firefly Books, 2002).

Date 2017-07-18
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Common names, Botanical nomenclature

Can you recommend a book that talks about the origins of the common names of plants, not just their botanical Latin equivalents?


The best book I have found is Geoffrey Grigson's A Dictionary of English Plant Names, published by Allen Lane in 1974. It goes into a great deal of detail, and usually provides the approximate date when the name came into use. Another good resource is Flowers and Plants: An International Lexicon with Biographical Notes, by Robert Shosteck (Quadrangle, 1974).

Date 2017-12-08
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Epilobium canum, Botanical nomenclature

Is there a difference between Zauschneria and Epilobium, also called California fuchsia in some sources? I'm trying to figure out if I can grow it here in the Northwest, with our wet winters. Also, any additional information about this plant (these plants?) would be appreciated.


The United States Department of Agriculture's Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) prefers the name Epilobium canum, though you will find this plant under Zauschneria as well. I have certainly seen this plant being grown in our area, but the wet winters could be a concern. According to the book, Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region (2004), Zauschneria californica (synonymous with Epilobium canum)needs good drainage and occasional to no water.

Anecdotal evidence from GardenWeb's online forum suggests that if you have a well-drained spot, you may be able to grow this plant there successfully. Oregon State University Extension has this to say:
"California fuchsia (Epilobium canum, also sold as Zauschneria californica) is another California native that grows well in Oregon both east and west of the Cascades."

There are several journal articles which have information about this plant. The Oct-Dec 2007 issue of Pacific Horticulture includes Bart O'Brien's "Getting Enough Zs in Your Garden: Enjoying Zauschnerias." Here is an abstract:
The author discusses growing Zauschnerias in the Mediterranean climate of the Pacific Coast area. The plants are native to California and commonly known as California fuchsia. They bloom in an orange-red color during the autumn and the flowers attract hummingbirds. Varieties and cultivars vary in size to suit a variety of garden applications.

Avant Gardener, April 2007, has an article entitled "Hardy Fuchsia Bushes." Here is the abstract:
The article discusses the varieties of California fuchsias, or Zauschneria, which has been renamed Epilobium. The shrubby 3' perennials are cold hardy to -25 degrees F and are native from Idaho to New Mexico. They have tubular flowers that bloom in late summer and early fall. Sources for plants are presented.

Robert Nold has written about Zauschneria in American Gardener, Jul/Aug 2005:
Presents information on California fuchsia or zauschneria shrub. Temperature resistance of the plant; species of the shrub; tips on growing zauschneria.

Date 2017-12-08
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Botanical nomenclature

I know a fair bit about plants and their botanical Latin names, but half the time I get corrected when pronouncing them, and the corrected pronunciations vary from one person to another. What gives??


You are right in observing that there is variability in how plant names are pronounced. The Plant Answer Line librarian here at the Miller Library wrote an article on this topic, "Say What: Pronouncing Botanical Latin," in the Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, Spring 2016.

See also the following essay, What's in a Name?, by Susan Mahr of University of Wisconsin Horticulture. Here is an excerpt:
There are 'official' ways to say Latin words. You can read the rules, but memorizing them may end up being more work than it's worth. For gardeners, I think the most important rule is to pronounce every letter and in the correct order. Unlike English, with all those silent vowels and diphthongs and whatnot, just separate the word into syllables and say it like it sounds. You might want to say each syllable separately, then string them together so you don't leave anything out or mix up the sounds (as people do when they pronounce 'anemone' as 'anenome'). As long as you say all the letters, the listener should be able to figure out what you mean, even if your pronunciation differs from theirs."

Fine Gardening magazine online has a pronunciation guide with phonetic spelling and audio clips, but even here, you may find that you have heard variant pronunciations from other trusted sources. Another source is Tom Fischer's blog, OverPlanted.

There are a number of useful books which provide guidelines for pronunciation, such as Dictionary of Plant Names by Allen Coombes (Timber Press, 1994). Keep in mind that the author is British, and his recommended pronunciations differ in some cases from American versions.

Date 2018-06-27
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Liquidambar, Botanical nomenclature

How on earth did Liquidambar enter the otherwise Latin list of genera? I have asked a lot of gardening experts, and no one else seems bothered by this. Can you assuage my anguish?


There are quite a few botanical (scientific) names that are not Latin in origin--many are Greek, or modeled after the name of the plant explorer who 'discovered' them, or the plant's geographical origins, to name a few possibilities.

Liquidambar actually does have Latin roots. According to Geoffrey Grigson's A Dictionary of English Plant Names (Allen Lane, 1974), Liquidambar styraciflua, a native of North America and Mexico, was introduced in 1683. The name refers to the tree's fragrant gum or resin:

liquidambar (liquidus, 'liquid,' + medieval Latin ambra, 'amber')

A Spanish physician, Francisco Hernandez, coined the name in the 16th century. "The gum was sold in apothecaries' shops as Balsamum liquidambrae." The species name, styraciflua, is derived from a Latin phrase meaning 'storax fluid.' From the following article in the Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Volume 86, I discovered more information about storax:
"According to Dioscorides:
storax is the sap of a tree which resembles the quince tree. The best is yellow, fatty and resinous; it has whitish lumps, its scent lasts for a very long time and when softened, it releases some honey-like moisture."

Date 2017-06-09
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Hamamelis, Botanical nomenclature

Where does witch-hazel get its common and botanical names? Is it related to hazel?


You ask a great question, and the answer is confusing. The scientific (botanical) name, Hamamelis comes from the Greek words for 'together with' (hama) and 'fruit' (melis), according to A Manual of Plant Names, 2nd revised edition, by C. Chicheley Plowden (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1970), and it is so called because "the flowers and the fruit are on the tree at the same time." Or it may be the Greek for "a plant with a pear-shaped fruit, possibly the medlar," according to William T. Stearn in his Stearn's Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners (Cassell, 1992). Or perhaps 'melis' refers to melon, as this page from the Holden Arboretum website contends:
"The name Hamamelis is from the Greek hama (together with) and melon (apple or fruit) referring to the fact that the common witch-hazel flowers when the fruit is ripe in fall."

Whether 'melis' refers to fruit, pear-shaped fruit, or melon is not elucidated by An English-Classical Dictionary for the Use of Taxonomists (compiled by Robert S. Woods; Pomona College, 1966), which lists 'carpos' for fruit, 'apioides' for pear-shaped, and 'melopepon' for melon (but meaning apple-shaped, or apple-gourd). The fruit of the witch-hazel is fairly inconspicuous and doesn't resemble apples, pears, or melons, but one could make a case for its resemblance to medlar.

About the common name, Holden Arboretum says, "Witch is a corruption of wice, Old English for lively or to bend. In Great Britain, a divining rod in the hands of a dowser would become 'lively' when it came near an underground water source, pointing to the spot to dig a well. While the 'witch-hazel tree' that these divining rods were cut from in England was an elm, Ulmus glabra, American colonists found a suitable replacement in Hamamelis virginiana, which has since been known as a witch-hazel." Plowden's book offers an alternate spelling of the common name, 'wych.'

Hazel is Corylus, which is in the family Betulaceae, while witch-hazel is in the family Hamamelidaceae. I think the connection between witch-hazel and hazel has more to do with a certain similarity of appearance of the leaves.

Date 2017-08-15
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Dioscorea, Ipomoea batatas, Botanical nomenclature

What is the difference between yams and sweet potatoes?


According to Elizabeth Schneider's Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini (William Morrow, 2001), the orange vegetable that many of us commonly call a yam is in actuality a type of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). So is the ivory-fleshed version (also known as Korean, Oriental, or Japanese sweet potato), and so is the boniato-type (a larger sweet potato with fragrant flesh that bakes up dry and fluffy). All sweet potatoes originated in the New World, though many are now grown and used back in Europe and Asia as well.

The true yam has many varieties, all of which originate in the Old World, but which may also be grown and sold here now, particularly in specialty markets. All of the true yams belong to the species Dioscorea, which has 60 edible species (10 of them widely grown). Few of them are sweet; none are as sweet as the orange vegetable we picture with marshmallows at family feasts in the US. Here is a sampling of some true yam types:

  • White yam (Dioscorea alata), ñame blanco --"sweet, delicate, mild"
  • Purple yam (also Dioscorea alata), ube, ratala, or kand -- "gently sweet, with a touch of smokiness, meatiness, and nuttiness"
  • Cushcush yam (Dioscorea trifida), mapuey, yampi, or igname couche-couche -- "dry, fluffy, and starchy"
  • African white yam (Dioscorea rotundata), Guinea yam, Ghana yam, fufu yam -- "5 pounds" "potato-like"
  • Chinese yam (Dioscorea esculenta), lesser yam, ñame papa "like a fibrous russet"

The following link may also be of interest. Library of Congress explains the confusion between these two types of tubers.

Date 2018-03-14
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Botanical nomenclature

What does it mean when a plant name is described as a synonym? And is a synonym "valid?"


It can get confusing when plant taxonomists decide to change the names of plants. According to the International Code of Nomenclature (Melbourne Code, 2011), a replacement name "is a new name based on a legitimate or illegitimate, previously published name, which is its replaced synonym. The replaced synonym, when legitimate, does not provide the final epithet, name, or stem of the replacement name." To me, that sounds like the synonym is the name which is no longer current. This link from Stephen Saupe of the biology department at St. John's University, Collegeville, MN is a little easier to understand. Here is an excerpt:

"The correct name for a plant is the oldest, validly published name. Although this sounds simple, in practice it can be challenging to sort through all of the names that have been published for a species and determine which is the correct one.

"Although it may seem that botanists change scientific names just to frustrate us, this is not the case. Names are changed because additional scientific study shows that the original name: (1) didn't follow the rules (i.e., wasn't the earliest, or is taxonomic or nomenclatural synonym) or (2) because our taxonomic ideas of the genus and species has changed since the original study (i.e., additional studies showed that two closely related species are actually one). Perhaps this is a good time to mention taxonomists who are 'splitters' (focus on the differences between taxa) and those who are 'lumpers' (focus on the similarities)."

As you may have noticed, people often continue to refer to plants by invalidated names. And sometimes the rejected names are made valid again later. Unless you are publishing a scholarly article and need to be precise and up-to-date about the plant names, aim to use names that people will recognize and understand.

Date 2018-03-15
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A Botanist's Vocabulary by Susan Pell, 2016

Reviewed by: Rebecca Alexander on 2016-11-18

book jacketIn my work as a horticulture reference librarian, I am often presented with a scrap of leaf or flower or twig, and asked to identify it. Although I have a pretty good visual memory for plants and their names, I have no formal training in botany. A Botanist's Vocabulary by Susan Pell and Bobbi Angell (Timber Press, 2016) is a useful tool not just for botanists but for all who work with plants—home gardeners and professionals alike. The book is arranged in straight alphabetical dictionary order, which makes it easy to look up a term you may have come across in the course of learning about a plant. It complements a book like The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms (Michael Hickey and Clive King, 2000), which is organized by the parts of a plant—the roots, seeds, flowers, leaves, fruits, and so forth. The pen and ink illustrations by Bobbi Angell are very clear, and red arrows or markings indicate the part of the plant referred to by a term, when such clarification is needed. The definitions are also concise, and include synonyms or in some cases antonyms, as relevant. I found familiar as well as unfamiliar terms, and as a word-nerd this is the kind of reference book that is a great joy to browse. The only desired feature the book lacks is consistent identification of the plant or plant family shown in each illustration. Some are named, but many are not. It would be helpful, once one has looked up the word, to have at least one example of which genus or family exhibits the characteristic being described and defined.

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