Plant police drop botanical bombshell

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2012 - 9:06 AM

The International Botanical Congress has decreed that we can all get by with a little less Latin when it comes to naming and describing plants.

Botanical drawing of rose from book in the Andersen Horticultural Library collection at the Arboretum.

Photo: Minnesota Landscape Arboretum,

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The sero populi have spoken.

Latin, the long-dead language that has ruled the plant world for centuries, isn't widely understood even by serious plant people.

"I've published mistakes in Latin. Nobody notices," said George Weiblen, professor and curator of plants at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History.

That's why Weiblen is one of the plant experts cheering a recent decision to loosen Latin's grip on plant nomenclature. The International Botanical Congress, which gathers every six years, met in Melbourne, Australia, last summer and voted to drop the requirement that new species be described in botanical Latin.

"I'm relieved. It's about time," Weiblen said. "It was really an anachronism. Trying to carry stuff like that with us as we move forward is potentially holding us back."

The change is relatively modest, since plants will keep their double-barreled Latin names. But descriptions can now be written in either Latin or English. For example, the fig species that Weiblen and botanist Tim Whitfeld discovered in 2010 will still be called Ficus rubrivestimenta. But instead of having to describe it as "Similaris ad F. erythrospermum sed foliis maturis rubellis venis," as they did when they published their finding, they could just say "Similar to Ficus erythropserma but having mature leaves with reddish veins," according to Weiblen.

In the plant world, however, any step away from Latin is controversial, with some criticizing it as a travesty, and others heralding it as long overdue.

"This is pretty radical for botanists," Weiblen conceded. While zoologists dropped the Latin description requirement years ago, "botanists have been very slow to adapt to change. This is certainly the biggest we've seen in a very long time. It's the botanical equivalent of a constitutional amendment. It opens the door to other kinds of changes to the rules of naming."

That's what concerns critics, who fear that less reliance on Latin will mean less precision.

"I don't want to see things watered down," said Laverne Dunsmore, owner of Countryside Gardens near Delano and a peony hybridizer. "Softening that concept of accuracy will lead to confusion in future research."

Kent Petterson, owner of Terrace Horticultural Books in St. Paul, also has reservations. "I'm big on accuracy," he said. "I think we should continue to describe plants with local vernacular names and with more precise binomial names, both of which add human dimensions to plant names."

Latin may not mean much to average gardeners, said botanist Shirley Mah Kooyman. "But for botanists, it's critical to understand how plants relate to each other. For the everyday person, just interested in pretty plants, it doesn't matter, but eventually it will impact them as well."

The plant congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of the change, but the vote wasn't unanimous. Roy Gereau, a researcher at the Missouri Botanical Garden who opposed it, said the Latin requirement served an important role in preserving the link to botany's academic past. The rule had been on the books since 1908, but Latin has been the language of international botanists since the Renaissance.

Gereau, a botanist, argues that botanists still need to be versed in Latin. "There are many works that are not translated that remain important to us that increasingly no one is learning to use," he said.

The Latin requirement also was an obstacle to fraud, he said, because it helped prevent the naming of bogus species, with scientist/translators like him acting as gatekeepers.

Welby Smith, Minnesota state botanist for the Department of Natural Resources, isn't too concerned about the change. "Plants will still have Latin names; the Latin names are not likely to disappear," he said.

As for the argument that less Latin means less precision? "I just don't buy it," Weiblen said. "Precision comes from precise terms, and that precision can come from English, too. Latin can be abused just as English can be abused."

And Latin is more likely to be abused because fewer people understand it, he said. "What's cumbersome about Latin is grammar. You have to decline verbs, cases and gender. People are not that proficient. A lot of botanists have struggled to find Latin scholars to help them. This is going to simplify and open up the process by which new species are developed and named."

Besides, "Nobody ever reads the Latin diagnosis anyway," he said. "Most of the people who did are dead."

This report includes material from the Washington Post. Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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