ICBN too

Thomas Lammers lammers at VAXA.CIS.UWOSH.EDU
Mon Jul 16 09:22:52 CDT 2001

At 09:04 AM 7/16/01 -0700, you wrote:

>I have my students learn both the formal taxonomic names as well as common
>names for all plants we study in lab and in the field.

Yeah, I did, too, until I started getting, "But that's what we call it,
back home!" each time I pointed out an "incorrect" common name on a
quiz.  With no authoritative source for common names, how can I tell a
student that "hooter nuts" is not the common name for Amphicarpaea bracteata?

>  it is incumbent on us as taxonomists to make our non-taxonomist
>colleagues aware of both the utility and the shortcomings of common

I tell students that common names are like The Little Girl Who Had a Little
Curl, Right in the Middle of Her Forehead: "When they are good, they are
very very good, but when they are bad, they are horrid."  Everyone in the
USA pretty much has an idea of the sort of plant  to which common names
such as "oak" or "maple" refer.  But what's a bluebell or a mayflower?  I
think all of us use a mix of the two: unambiguous common names when they
exist, scientific names when they don't.

>   One thing that tends to disenfranchise our "clients" is that
>when scientific names change, the common names that have been in use for
>so long are made obsolete or create confusion.  A classic example in my
>favorite plants was the recognition that the type specimen of Nuttall's
>oak (Q. nuttallii) belonged to a different species.  So, Quercus
>nuttallii is now a synonym for the taxonomically correct Quercus
>texana.  A suggested common name for this species is Texas red oak,
>rather than Nuttall's oak. But, Texas red oak is a name that has been
>used for at least three different species depending on the manuals
>consulted.  Many of my colleagues in the International Oak Society are
>bewildered by this because Nuttall's oak has such a long history of use
>in trade circles (arboriculture, nurseries, lumber).  When I prepared
>the treatment of the red and black oaks of North America for the Flora
>North America, I adopted the taxonomically correct nomenclature
>(treating Nuttall's oak as Quercus texana), but am now having second
>thoughts about the wisdom of doing so.

I would argue that the common name for the species is still Nuttall's
Oak.  Why not?

>In any case, I believe we do need to listen to our non-taxonomist
>colleagues and the general public.  We want them to have an appreciation
>of what we do, but we also must provide a system that is in some sense
>"user-friendly" for those who are not primarily interested in the
>evolutionary relationships among the plants they see and grow.

But you'd be surprised how many folks are interested to know what's related
to what.  "I didn't know Box Elder was a maple!"  Of course not.  If you
rely on common names, you think it's related to Buxus or Sambucus.  "But,
yeah, that malkes sense; the 'seeds' are the same." [We'll work on
morphology next.]

Common names that ARE common names -- i.e., part of the language used by
and recognized by the average speaker of the language, I have no beef
with.  But it seems patently silly to create a parallel system of contrived
English language names (e.g., "yellow-green bristly sedge") where none
exist.  That's where a lot of this is heading and I think we need to
educate our clients to the point where they see the silliness and waste of
it, too.

Thomas G. Lammers, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor and Curator of the Herbarium (OSH)
Department of Biology and Microbiology
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Oshkosh, Wisconsin 54901-8640 USA

e-mail:       lammers at uwosh.edu
phone:      920-424-1002
fax:           920-424-1101

Plant systematics; classification, nomenclature, evolution, and
biogeography of the Campanulaceae s. lat.

"Today's mighty oak is yesterday's nut that stood his ground."
                                                 -- Anonymous

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