Understanding the botanical naming system can be a difficult task for beginners—classification hierarchy, plant name changes, and name selection all have to be taken into account. But rather than tackle this important botanical puzzle all at once, we instead begin with the most basic piece: species names. The rules discussed here apply not just to the Brazil nut family, but to every plant found in all the world’s habitats, and have much in common with zoological nomenclature.
A species name consists of two parts—Gustavia augusta, for example. The first part of the name is the genus and the second is the species epithet, each of which is either in Latin or Latinized words from other languages, especially Greek. Known as binomial nomenclature, Carl Linnaeus is considered the first to use this system, which he employed in his Species Plantarum—long regarded as the starting point for plant nomenclature. As such, a name used in Species Plantarum has priority over other names published for the same species at a later date.
Gustavia augusta L. was published in a later, 1775 edition of Species Plantarum, but afterward the same species was published as Gustavia antillana Miers in 1874. In this case, Gustavia augusta is considered the correct name, and G. antillana is accepted as a synonym.
Let’s use plain English, which is exactly what the new plant-naming requirements do. As outlined in an op-ed published in the New York Times on January 22, Dr. Miller, who took part in the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia, where the changes were approved, explains that plants will still be named in Latin, but that they will no longer have to be described in Latin. This laborious process–which has been on the botanical books since 1908–is only the first hurdle each botanist must clear before he may name a new plant species. The next step, the publishing of this description in a printed, paper-based journal, has also been done away with by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature in an effort to speed the naming of plants. Why the hurry? As Dr. Miller says, “as many as one-third of all plant species (may be) at risk of extinction in the next 50 years.” One way to save a plant is to name a plant. From there, scientists–freed from the strictures of Latin–may further investigate the plant and all of its potentialities.