Edmonton Native Plant Society
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Botanical Names Update
by P. Cotterill on March 4th, 2011

Patsy Cotterill explains why some Latin names have been changed.

With the new techniques in molecular biology, and the large amount of taxonomic work being done for the definitive volumes of Flora of North America, taxonomists have refined the relationships existing among plants in North America and elsewhere. (The same is true of fauna, for example, birds, to a large extent, as a result of zoological taxonomic work.)

The result is that more species and subspecies are being recognized, where formerly only a single species was recognized and named. Also reflecting these new relationships, species are being switched into different (often new) genera (the next highest grouping of species in the taxonomic hierarchy ). Some genera and species are even being placed in different families from the ones they have traditionally belonged to. Because of the way the naming of plants works (according to international rules) these taxonomic changes have to be accompanied by changes in names or new combinations of names.

Take for example, the former genus Aster, in Alberta. With these changes, only one true Aster occurs in our province, Aster alpinus, of the foothills and mountains. All the other 20 or so Aster species of Alberta have been placed in four new genera: Canadanthus, Doellingeria, Eurybia and Symphyotrichum, of which Symphyotrichum has taken the most. (It’s too bad that all of these new genera are tougher to pronounce than the simple word Aster!) These genera all belong in the family Asteraceae, formerly known as the Compositae, because of their compound heads made up of tiny flowers or florets.

All this means of course that botanists and naturalists have to learn new names. Not only that but that while the old flower guides and Floras are still in circulation they have to be aware of the old names as well as the new ones. When a plant has more than one Latin name, by the way, these names are known as synonyms.

There are many websites on the Internet that are helpful for sorting these things out. If you Google the old name (in Latin)  you will find websites that give both old and new names, and also indicate which is the accepted one (i.e., the one currently recognized internationally).
Complicated? A lot to learn and remember? For sure, but remember that getting your head round these changes – or learning new names for the first time – helps keep the brain fit and supple!  

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