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Botanical nomenclature

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Title: Botanical nomenclature  
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Subject: Species Plantarum, Botany, International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants, Author citation (botany), Tautonym
Collection: Botanical Nomenclature, Botany, Scientific Terminology
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Botanical nomenclature

Botanical nomenclature is the formal, scientific naming of plants. It is related to, but distinct from taxonomy. Plant taxonomy is concerned with grouping and classifying plants; botanical nomenclature then provides names for the results of this process. The starting point for modern botanical nomenclature is Linnaeus' Species Plantarum of 1753. Botanical nomenclature is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN), which replaces the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN). Fossil plants are also covered by the code of nomenclature.


  • History and scope 1
  • Relationship to taxonomy 2
  • See also 3
    • General 3.1
    • Botany 3.2
  • References 4
  • Bibliography 5

History and scope

Botanical nomenclature has a long history, going back beyond the period when Latin was the scientific language throughout Europe, to Theophrastus(c. 370–287 BC), Dioscorides (c. 40 – 90 AD) and other Greek writers. Many of these work have come down to us in Latin translations. The principal Latin writer on botany was Pliny the Elder (23–49 AD). From Mediaeval times, Latin became the universal scientific language (lingua franca) in Europe. Most written plant knowledge was the property of monks, particularly Benedictine, and the purpose of these early herbals was primarily medicinal rather than plant science per se. It would require the invention of the printing press (1450) to make such information more widely available.[1][2][3]

Leonhart Fuchs, a German physician and botanist is often considered the originator of developing Latin names for the rapidly increasing number of plants known to science. For instance he coined the name Digitalis in his De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes (1542).

A key event was Linnaeus’ adoption of binomial names for plant species in his Species Plantarum (1753). Every plant species is given a name that remains the same no matter what other species were placed in the genus, and this separates taxonomy from nomenclature. These species names of Linnaeus together with names for other ranks (such as family, class, order, variety), can serve to express a great many taxonomic viewpoints.[4]

In the nineteenth century it became increasingly clear that there was a need for rules to govern scientific nomenclature, and initiatives were taken to produce a body of laws. These were published in successively more sophisticated editions. For plants the key dates are 1867 (lois de Candolle), 1906 (International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature, 'Vienna Rules') and 1952 (International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, 'Stockholm Code'). The most recent is the Melbourne Code, adopted in 2011.[5]

Another development was the insight into the delimitation of the concept of 'plant'. Linnaeus held a much wider view of what a plant is than is accepted today. Gradually more and more groups of organisms are being recognised as being independent of plants. Nevertheless the formal names of most of these organisms are governed by the (ICN), even today. A separate Code was adopted to govern the nomenclature of Bacteria, the International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria.

All formal botanical names are governed by the ICN, and within the limits set by that code there is another set of rules, the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). This latter code applies to plant cultivars, that have been deliberately altered or selected by humans (see cultigen) and require separate recognition.

Relationship to taxonomy

Botanical nomenclature is closely linked to plant taxonomy, and botanical nomenclature serves plant taxonomy, but nevertheless botanical nomenclature is separate from plant taxonomy. Botanical nomenclature is merely the body of rules prescribing which name applies to that taxon (see correct name) and if a new name may (or must) be coined.

Plant taxonomy is an empirical science, a science that determines what constitutes a particular taxon (taxonomic grouping, plural: taxa): e.g. "What plants belong to this species?" and "What species belong to this genus?". The definition of the limits of a taxon is called its 'circumscription'. For a particular taxon, if two taxonomists agree exactly on its circumscription, rank and position (i.e. the higher rank in which it is included) then there is only one name which can apply under the ICN.[6] Where they differ in opinion on any of these issues, one and the same plant may be placed in taxa with different names. As an example, consider Siehe's Glory-of-the-Snow, Chionodoxa siehei:

Flowers of Chionodoxa siehei, which can also be called Scilla siehei
  • Taxonomists can disagree as to whether two groups of plants are sufficiently distinct to be put into one species or not. Thus Chionodoxa siehei and Chionodoxa forbesii have been treated as a single species by some taxonomists or as two species by others.[7] If treated as one species, the earlier published name must be used,[8] so plants previously called Chionodoxa siehei become Chionodoxa forbesii.
  • Taxonomists can disagree as to whether two genera are sufficiently distinct to be kept separate or not. While agreeing that the genus Chionodoxa is closely related to the genus Scilla, nevertheless the bulb specialist Brian Mathew considers that their differences warrant maintaining separate genera.[7] Others disagree, in which case they will call Chionodoxa siehei, for example, Scilla siehei. The earliest published genus name must be used when genera are merged;[8] in this case Scilla predates Chionodoxa.
  • Taxonomists can disagree as to the limits of families. When the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) first published its classification of the flowering plants in 1998, Chionodoxa siehei would have been placed in the family Hyacinthaceae, which was one of the families which was then recognized.[9] In the 2009 revision of their classification, the APG no longer recognize the Hyacinthaceae as a separate family, merging it into a greatly enlarged family Asparagaceae.[10] Thus Chionodoxa siehei moves from the Hyacinthaceae to the Asparagaceae.
  • Taxonomists can disagree as to the rank of a taxon. Rather than allow the Hyacinthaceae to disappear altogether, Chase et al. suggested that it be treated as a subfamily within the Asparagaceae.[11] The ICN requires family names to end with "-aceae" and subfamily names to end with "-oideae".[12] Thus a possible name for the Hyacinthaceae when treated as a subfamily would be 'Hyacinthoideae'. However, the name Scilloideae had already been published in 1835 as the name for a subfamily containing the genus Scilla, so this name has priority and must be used.[11] Hence for those taxonomists who accept that there should be a subfamily for Scilla and related genera, and accept the APG system of 2009, Chionodoxa siehei is placed in the subfamily Scilloideae of the family Asparagaceae. However, a taxonomist is perfectly free to continue to argue that Hyacinthaceae should be maintained as a separate family from the other families which were merged into the Asparagaceae.

In summary, if a plant has different names or is placed in differently named taxa:

  • If the confusion is purely nomenclatural, i.e. it concerns what to call a taxon which has the same circumscription, rank and position, the ICN provides rules to settle the differences, typically by prescribing that the earliest published name must be used, although names can be conserved.
  • If the confusion is taxonomic, i.e. taxonomists differ in opinion on the circumscription, rank or position of taxa, then only more scientific research can settle the differences, and even then only sometimes.

See also


  1. ^ Stearn 1992.
  2. ^ Stearn 2002.
  3. ^ Pavord 2005.
  4. ^ Barkworth, M. (2004), Botanical Nomenclature (Nomenclature, Names, and Taxonomy), University of Utah, archived from the original on 2011-02-20, retrieved 2011-02-20 
  5. ^ McNeill, J.; Barrie, F.R.; Buck, W.R.; Demoulin, V.; Greuter, W.; Hawksworth, D.L.; Herendeen, P.S.; Knapp, S.; Marhold, K.; Prado, J.; Prud'homme Van Reine, W.F.; Smith, G.F.; Wiersema, J.H.; Turland, N.J. (2012). International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (Melbourne Code) adopted by the Eighteenth International Botanical Congress Melbourne, Australia, July 2011. Regnum Vegetabile 154. A.R.G. Gantner Verlag KG.  
  6. ^ McNeill et al. 2012, Principle IV
  7. ^ a b Dashwood, Melanie & Mathew, Brian (2005), Hyacinthaceae – little blue bulbs (RHS Plant Trials and Awards, Bulletin Number 11), Royal Horticultural Society, archived from the original on 20 February 2011, retrieved 19 February 2011 , p. 5
  8. ^ a b McNeill et al. 2012, Principle III
  9. ^ Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (1998), "An ordinal classification for the families of flowering plants" (PDF), Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 85 (4): 531–553,  
  10. ^ Angiosperm Phylogeny Group III (2009), "An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III", Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161 (2): 105–121,  
  11. ^ a b Chase, M.W.; Reveal, J.L. & Fay, M.F. (2009), "A subfamilial classification for the expanded asparagalean families Amaryllidaceae, Asparagaceae and Xanthorrhoeaceae", Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161 (2): 132–136,  
  12. ^ McNeill et al. 2012, Article 19.1


  • Bernhardt, Peter (2008). Gods and goddesses in the garden : Greco-Roman mythology and the scientific names of plants. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.  
  • Morgan, Michelle (October 2005). "Botanical Latin: The Poetry of Herb Names" (PDF). Number 89. MediHerb. Retrieved 19 February 2015. 
  • Fuchs, Leonhart (1642). De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes. Basileae: In officina Isingriniana. Retrieved 20 February 2015. 
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