Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Why I hate common names

Arundo donax
I have a hate-hate relationship with common names, and very little patience for plantsmen and women who insist on using them.

The reason for that is simple, and rather practical.

Scientific names by and large are standard for any one particular species (with the minor point that names can sometimes change over time as the taxonomic placement of the species changes due to new information being uncovered).

Common names, on the other hand, can vary from one country to another, and many times even within one country! This dilutes clarity and introduces the chance for errors in identification. For example, in a single youtube search for videos I found that Arundo donax can be called a multitude of names, including Giant Reed Grass, Arundo Cane, California Bagpipe Cane, Tube Cane, and Giant Cane.

In addition to dispelling confusion about a plant when communicating, the use of scientific nomenclature also has another advantage. It automatically allows people to group similar plants together. This is because a scientific name has two parts to it: The genus name (which is always capitalized), and the specific epithet (which is always in lower case).

Poa pratensis
For example, Kentucky Blue Grass is Poa pratensis, where Poa is the genus name, and pratensis is the specific epithet. Another grass, Poa bulbosa, shares the same genus name, which automatically tells us that the two species are related somehow, and thus have been grouped into the same genus.

In the same way, our own species is Homo sapiens, with Homo being the genus name (meaning 'human being') and sapiens being the specific epithet (meaning 'wise, intelligent'). One of our cousins in the human lineage is Homo erectus, a species related to us from 2 million years ago.

Poa bulbosa spikelets
I do know that some people struggle to remember the latinized nomenclature, but I can tell you now that once you get used to it, you'll wonder why anyone would ever use common names again. Before long you'll be throwing out scientific names like an expert, and rolling your eyes at noobies who have not seen the light ;-)

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