New: Wild Neighbors: Another Round of the Name Game

By Joe Eaton
Tuesday January 10, 2012 - 11:15:00 PM
Common California aster: now it's a Symphyotrichum.
Gordon Leppig and Andrea Pickart, via Wikimedia Commons.
Common California aster: now it's a Symphyotrichum.

The taxonomists are at it again, reshuffling the natural order. This is not in itself a bad thing. Science keeps clarifying the evolutionary relationships among plants and animals, and their scientific names—the classic Latin or Latinoid binomials—are altered accordingly. For amateurs, though, it can be annoying. 

Case in point: last year the American Ornithologists’ Union, the College of Cardinals of serious bird study, reclassified a bunch of wood warblers. Wood warblers make up a New World songbird family known as the Parulidae, after the genus Parula, which includes two species, the northern parula and tropical parula. Dendroica, another genus in the family, included a number of species in North America and the Caribbean, including such familiars as the yellow-rumped and Townsend’s warblers. 

However, genetic studies indicated that neither Parula nor Dendroica deserved separate rank as a genus. Both were closely related to the genus Setophaga, which used to contain only one species, the American redstart. Presto! All the Dendroicas and Parulas are now Setophagas. Parula ceases to exist as a genus. So is the family now Setophagidae? No, that would be too logical. It’s still Parulidae. 

This makes more of a difference than non-birders might think. “Dendroica” was a meaningful term, in a loose way; it’s not unusual to refer to a yellow, green, and/or streaky warbler as “some kind of dendroica,” especially in the fall when there are a lot of migrants in cryptic subadult plumage. It may be a small loss, but it’s a loss nonetheless. 

But this is small potatoes compared with the renaming of the vascular plants in the new edition of the Jepson Manual, the definitive botanical reference for California. Plant people use a lot of Latin. I once heard a landscape architect and his mostly Spanish-speaking crew communicating in a mix of broken English, pidgin Spanish, and botanical Latin. Well, the vocabulary is going to have to expand. 

The changes in the new Jepson are too numerous to cover exhaustively here. Many of them are at the genus level, and replace old familiar names with polysyllabic neologisms. Take Aster. According to Jepson, there are no true Asters in California. What we’re accustomed to calling Asters are now Oreostemma, Symphyotrichum, Eucephalus, Eurybia, Seriocarpus, Almutaster, or Ionactis. There may still be Asters somewhere in the world, but I wouldn’t count on it. Aster eatonii, named after one of the New England Eatons to whom I am apparently not related, is rechristened Symphyotrichum bracteolatum

The gilias get similar treatment: some of them are now in Linanthus or Navarretia, while others have become Saltugilia, Aliciella, or Lathrocasis. Most of the previous linanthuses—attractive white-to-pink flowers in the phlox family—were moved to Leptosiphon. The pea relatives formerly known as Lotus wind up in Acmispon, with a few in Hosackia. Lithocarpus, the tanoak, becomes Notholithocarpus. Madia, the tarweed genus, is split into Anisocarpus, Hemizonella, Harmonia, Jensia, and Kyhosia

Notice how few of the new times trip lightly off the tongue. Notholithocarpus?! 

A personal favorite: Trillium rivale, the brook wakerobin, becomes Pseudotrillium rivale. Why the suggestion of spuriousness here? It still looks like a perfectly good trillium. 

If the Jepson people made any higher-level changes (family and up), I don’t want to know about it. Having finally taken a plant taxonomy course a couple of years ago, I’d rather not have to ask Merritt College for my money back.