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Mar 8, 2011 10:04 AM CST
Name: Lance Gardner
coastal plain Virginia
Question authority, guide in wisdom
A very informative and well written article, Charlie. Thank you for taking the time to let everyone know why official nomenclature is so important, and how to understand it all.
Common names are common, and often when discussing a plant with someone else, I have had to clarify which plant is being referred to by their common name. Unfortunately, scientific or official names are rarely used, so I could only take a good guess that the common name the other person was using referred to a specific plant.
I also find it fascinating that Linneaus' system of nomenclature, and indeed many of his names, are still valid after over 250 years. It has only been recently, with the advances in genetic identification, that we have seen many plants, and other organisms, getting reclassified. Since genetics was difficult to fathom not that long ago, appearances was all there was available for classifying and identifying what was found. Even minute structures were carefully examined, resulting in for example the seemingly various species in the genus Eupatorium, which included the blue flowering E. coelestinum, white flowered E. album, the grayish E. capillifolium and the purple E. purpureum. Recent genetic studies have reclassified some in this group to different genera, but I was always surprised to find them in the same genus when they looked so much different.
Another difficulty that was encountered with using appearance for classification is that sometimes very different appearing organisms are actually the same species that just have different phenotypes. A good example is the tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) which has the typical yellow form with black stripes, and the black form. Genetics has allowed many apparently different forms to be more properly classified as a single genus.
For those that are interested even more in recent advances in biological classification and how it is changing, you might want to check into phylogenetic trees. Here are some links in case anyone wants more reading. Be forewarned, though, Charlie's explanation is a bit easier to follow, so be prepared to be muddled the first time through, perhaps. Still, it makes for interesting reading, and can greatly help to understand current advances:

Perhaps the biggest change that is being brought on by the phylogenetic tree is a new understanding of how closely or distantly various organisms are related. For example, what used to be considered bacteria are now broken into Bacteria and Archaea, and it might be better instead to say microbes to describe the little critters like this. We are actually much more closely related to plants than most microbes are to each other, even within Bacteria or Archaea.
Of course, being a science person, I find such things much more fascinating than many others might, so perhaps we can be thankful that people like Charlie are around to keep it all straight.
Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground -- the unborn of the future Nation. The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations.
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