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Some people consider Latin plant names a needless complication. Actually, once you learn the system, they simplify plant identification, since a Latin name becomes recognized only after a detailed, internationally-published study to insure that a "new" species is not simply a variation of some other species.
Common names can be almost anything. They may be more or less descriptive terms such as "white oak," "thunderwood," "butternut," "pokesalad," etc.; or corruptions of Latin names, such as "elm" from Ulmus.

Most plants have multiple common names -- for example, Maclura pomifera is known to various people as Osage-orange, hedgeapple, horse-apple, bois d'arc, bodark, etc. "Tuliptree," "tulip-poplar", "poplar," "yellow poplar," "white-poplar," and "whitewood" are all common names for a member of the magnolia family -- neither a tulip relative, nor a poplar! And the term "white oak" has been used to refer to Durand oak, overcup oak, swamp chestnut-oak, chestnut-oak, and post oak -- as well as to "the" true white oak. 

About the only rule in common names is that a borrowed name does not stand as a separate word in another tree's name -- it must be hyphenated or wholly included: for example, a white oak is an oak; but an Osage-orange is neither an orange nor an apple; and a red cedar is a Juniper, not a true cedar (Cedrus)

Using botanical or "scientific" names helps simplify this problem -- especially to a person who has picked up any French, Spanish, Italian, or especially Latin along the way. Some of the Language connections are evident even in English.

The botanical name usually consists of two parts: The first word, which is capitalized, identifies the "Genus" or "kind," and is a Latin noun (such as Quercus, which means "oak"). 

The second word identifies the "Species" -- an uncapitalized Latin adjective (such as alba, meaning "white"), and it describes the plant in terms of its color, size, origin, normal habitat, discoverer, or some other unique feature. Both words are underlined or italicized, to indicate that they are from a foreign language. In formal situations these should be followed by an abbreviation of the name of the person credited with first describing the species accurately. Thus ... 

Quercus alba L. (oak, white, identified by Linneaus) 
Hamamelis virginiana L. (discovered in Virginia) 
Liquidambar styraciflua L. (flowing styrax or storax) 
rategus pyracanthoides Beadle (like a Pyracantha) 
Quercus caput-rivuli Ashe (growing near the headwaters of small streams, and discovered by the botanist Ashe) 
Magnolia ashei Weatherby (named for botanist Ashe) 
Carya aquatica (a bottomland hickory)

Varieties are Latin adjectives, italicized or underlined; cultivars are English nicknames, in quotes. 

For example:

Cornus florida 'White Cloud' ('White Cloud' dogwood) 
Quercus falcata v. falcata (southern red oak) 
Quercus falcata v. pagodaefolia (cherrybark oak) 

The names don't all provide accurate information, naturally. Pinus palustris means "pond pine," but it designates "longleaf pine," an upland species! There is a "pond pine," but it was discovered later, and ended up as Pinus serotina ("late pine"), referring to its flowering cycle. And there are plenty of disagreements over names, with new discoveries and occasional renamings. But with all its imperfections, the system gives scientists and others a vocabulary that is well understood and accepted around the world. All in all, it helps to 
know both types of names! 


A taxon is a grouping unit, with certain conservative (relatively unchanging) identifying traits that are dependable over wide expanses of time and geography; most traits important in taxonomy are related to basic structure and to reproduction.

The following is a hierarchy of taxonomic units, not all of which are used in all cases; the most common levels are marked with "*": 

Kingdom (plants / animals / fungi / viruses? / mycoplasmas? / ...) 
Phylum (vascular / non-vascular) 
   gymnosperm (naked-seed) 
   angiosperm (vessel-seed) 
   monocotyledons (1 seed-leaf -- grasses)
   dicotyledons (2 seed-leaves -- broadleaf) 
* Family (related by flower/fruit parts) 
   * Genus (close reproductive similarity) 
   * Species 

Species are commonly subdivided, especially in horticulture: 
Variety -- essentially, a subspecies; often this term is used to designate clones that have been discovered and  commercially exploited as ornamentals. 
Variant -- an apparent member of a species, with differences not strong enough  to warrant separate classification.

Ecotype or Strain -- a subspecies with localized environmental adaptations. 

Clone -- a vegetative (non-sexual) reproduction of a single plant often for  commercial or research purposes.


Morphological (traditional) -- considers the resence/absence, number, and arrangement of evolutionarily conservative features assumed to be under genetic control. For example, the type of flowers (e.g., catkins vs. ordinary flowers, or whether or not the petals (if present) are separate or are formed into a trumpet). 

Anatomical --  based on size, shape, and functions of tissues, such as vessels, tracheids, etc. 

Embryological --  based on the assumption that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" -- that the development of an individual organism from an embryo reflects the evolution of the species. 

Biochemical --  considers similarities in the chemical composition of  related species -- hence the occurrence of poisons in many of the Anacardiaceae, and interesting essences in the Hamamelidaceae. You can see a connection here with the science of pharmacognosy, which deals with discovering the chemical basis of folk and tribal medicine. 

Biological --  concentrates on separation of species according to biological barriers such as site factors, physical barriers, phenology (timing of phases in life cycles, etc.). 

Numerical or Statistical -- a composite method using 50 - 300 characters of all types to group possible species according to degree of similarity. This method relies heavily on computers and advanced statistical concepts.

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