Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What's in the Name?

A long time ago, when plants were only found in their original habitat, each plant had one name.  Then there were explorers who went to far away unheard-of lands and they carried back their discoveries to their country.  Among the important commodities that they got were plants.   Then with the commercial airliners people smuggle plants from places that they visit and vive versa.  Although this illegal operation is almost impossible to do now with the Homeland Security and Immigration Department in place, some still try hard to do it because it is part of human nature to acquire and share the good things in life.  Once they are in a foreign land these plants were then given other names. 

The plant that was once called papa originated from the Andes Mountains of Peru.  It has been brought to far away places throughout the world.  In France, this same plant is called pommes de terre, in India it is called aloo, in the Philippines it is patatas, and so on.  You can see how this can be very confusing when we read literature.

Carolus Linnaeus thought of a very good way to solve this problem.  He proposed and started a naming system known as binomial nomenclature.  This eventually became the standard for naming all species.  Binomial nomenclature is like giving first and last names for all species of organisms.  This is the latinized name given to plants also known as scientific name. Let's look at the following name for example:

Scientific Name: Solanum tuberosum L.
Common Name:  Potato

Solanum is the generic (genus) name.  Genus is the name given for a group of plants/organisms with physical characteristics that are similar and permamnent.  It always start with a capital letter.  Solanum describes a group of plants that have the following characteristics:  lightly to heavily toxic; clammy to hairy plants; star to bell shaped flowers with five lobes; and fruit is always a berry.  Examples of plants in this genus are potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes.

             Eggplant: (Solanum melongena L.)  - slightly toxic, clammy leaves, bell-shaped flowers

Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum L.) -  hairy, slightly toxic leaves, star-shaped flowers

tuberosum is the specific name (epithet).  Species may be a noun or adjective.  It is written in th elower case. It may be s distingushing characteristic of the flower as in grandiflora (meaning big flowers); a location of discovery as in philippinensis  (from the Philippines) or montpeliensis (from Montpelier); or it may honor a person's name as in Davisii for Mr. Davis.  tuberosum refers to a group of plants that develop tubers.
Both the generic and the specific names are written in italics or enclosed in a parenthesis to indicate that they are based on a foreign language.

The L. stands for Linaeus (Carolus), the person who named this plant.  If Miss Helen Taja were to name a plant she  would have to add the letter T after the generic name so that everyone will know who named it.  Perhaps this is a priceless reward for doing your part in naming all the creatures that God made.  After all this was the first job that man had.  Adam in the garden of Eden was instructed by God to name them all.

"He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field."   - Genesis 2:19b-20a

So what is in the scientific name of a plant?  It is a picture of the distinctive characteristics inherent to the plant being named.

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