New name

Taxonomists have changed several plant names, ones that are common in the green industry, much to the chagrin of growers.

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The taxonomists are at it again! Names have changed.

We all might have heard about how the common herb rosemary has changed from Rosmarinus officinalis to Salvia rosmarinus after a molecular phylogenetics study in 2004 shook up the Lamiaceae family. This study reordered many of its members as different clades and made horticulture households shake their fists in 2017 when it became clear that we’d need to relearn another name.

But alas, in all that big hubbub, another horticulture darling, Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) had its name changed to Salvia yangii. So while we relearn these names with you, here is a list of other common plants and their name changes.

To find out the latest information around Latin binomial nomenclature, and watch botanists and taxonomists duke it out in real time over white papers, you can go to the International Plant Names Index (IPNI), a collaboration between The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, The Harvard University Herbaria and The Australian National Herbarium, hosted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It is the great keeper of all taxonomic records, akin to the library of Alexandria, and with enough information to fuel your plant-themed internet rabbit hole for days.

Salvia yangii (Russian sage) formerly know as Perovskia atripicifolia

All of this leads us to point out one issue — while the rest of the worlds of botany, ecology and even some horticulture (especially public gardens) are moving on and changing the names in their white papers or on their websites — the plant producing end usually takes much more time to change the direction of the ship. It takes a lot longer for the general population to relearn something that isn't common knowledge (and they’re who we grow plants for) than it is for people in academic settings.

We do have to ask ourselves, though, about who is adhering to these name changes and why, and who these name changes serve? For those of us who grow for the average consumer, taxonomic name changes are a difficult thing to transition. Training customers to reliably use one common name and that one common name applies to one plant is difficult (Don't get me started on all the things that are called creeping Charlie that are, in fact, not the same plant). Then teaching people the Latin binomial nomenclature so we achieve one plant = one name and can communicate clearly about what plant we're talking about between two different people is another layer. And then, now, there are more updated names? If Latin binomial nomenclature was created to limit confusion in communication about plants all over the world, then what of these quietly announced name changes that happen in the annals of record-keeping websites?

For people out there in the field, we want to start a conversation: Are you using the updated nomenclature? How long do you think it’s reasonable for a transition period from one name to the next? Who are the people you're working with — do they generally use the most up-to-date nomenclature?

Eutrochium spp. (joe-pye weed) formerly known as Eupatorium spp.

For the educators: Do you teach horticulture students the up-to-date nomenclature or do you teach the older names, or both? For public garden horticulturists: How do you receive the name changes and how does the public receive the new names?

For growers: What names do you use? Do you list both names (new and old)? In your experience, how long does it generally take for the new name to stick? We want to hear your thoughts on navigating this ongoing situation. Write to ecoplug@north

Each day, the taxonomists out there will hurl new mouthfuls of Latin at us. And each day, we’ll probably groan. The constant struggle between the people who name the plants and the people who grow them.

Oenothera lindheimeri (beeblossom) formerly known as Gaura lindheimeri

While the genus Eupatorium and Aster got a really good shakedown recently, not all plants with the genus Aster were changed to Eurybia or Symphyotrichum, or with the genus Eupatorium to Eutrochium or Conoclinium. Which means we can't mentally just swap out the old names with the new ones — there are plants that the old genera name still applies (i.e. Eupatorium hyssopifolium still is Eupatorium, not Eutrochium).

Those taxonomists, they really do like to make things tricky.

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Chelsea Campbell is part of the marketing team at North Creek Nurseries.
Editor’s note: This originally appeared in North Creek’s newsletter, The Plug, and was used with permission. It’s been edited for length and clarity.

September 2022
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