The Name Game


by Ken Slump

Posted by Sys Admin almost 2 years ago.

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Getting a Handle on Latin Nomenclature in the Orchid World

FOR MANY, ONE OF SCIENCE’S major frustrations is the Latin binomial system that has been adopted for the naming of plants, animals and a host of other stuff that is neither. As lay people go, orchid hobbyists are likely exposed to more Latin nomenclature than most. We grow many orchid species and their hybrids that do not possess good common names. This is partially because there are so many, many orchids, and unique and succinct common names of adequate description that could distinguish one species from another defy the limits of our language.

The 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus is responsible for the international system that has helped to keep the Latin language alive, and it actually works quite well. The main purposes of the scheme are to organize related plants and to apply a single name that is used for any particular plant worldwide. Traditionally, the floral and fruiting structures of the plant were the primary characteristics used to determine relationships; the morph-ology of the remainder of the plant might be considered to a lesser degree. Since then, other characteristics have played a role when experts determine relationships among plants, and today DNA studies are dramatically altering our under-standing of orchid classification. 

So far as the name is concerned, international rules stipulate that the first person to describe a new species has priority in applying its proper Latin name. For more than two centuries, this wrinkle, plus the debate about exactly what constitutes a unique and separate species, has led to revisions and name changes within the plant world and kept many a plant taxonomist gainfully employed. An international group convenes every few years to govern these issues.

Latin was the language of learning during the 18th century. It was the logical choice for plant nomenclature because it is the root of many European languages. Also, it does not favor the common names of plants, which have no rules of application that are in use by the people in any particular country or geographic region.

Despite many horticulturists’ suspicions to the contrary, the inter-national group does not change plant names simply for the sake of change. But changes do come with regularity. Even so, there are cases where plants that have had their name changed are later restored their previous name, the earlier name conserved because it was in such popular usage. Name changes per se are not intended to be problematic, but referencing published material about a particular species may be difficult if you are not familiar with the synonymy.

Fortunately for those trying to learn them, orchid growers and hobbyists often use a plant’s Latin name as the popular name for the plant as well, and that is the ideal of the system — one name for each plant that is used by all.

PRONUNCIATION  The biggest challenge for the uninitiated usually comes the first time they try to vocalize the Latin phrases, which may be composed of words that are often long and frequently contain unfamiliar-looking syllables. The fear of eliciting giggles from their listener or being instructed on the “proper” pronun-ciation stop many from trying. Do not be afraid to get your Latin feet wet. Those who correct you usually have only the best of intentions.

I attempt to be as democratic as possible in accepting anyone’s spoken version of a Latin or Latinized word. While most people pronounce Cattleya as though it was named after a domestic feline pet, others speak a version that promotes a more bovine image. The first version is preferred, since the genus was, in fact, named for the Englishman William Cattley; but, at the risk of an arrest by one of the “name police,” I can say that I comprehend the genus of intended reference regardless of which pronunciation I hear.

You can find recommended pronunciation discrepancies among valid reference books too. The names of long-established genera and species seem to frequently acquire the in-flections and dialect that relates to the native language of their speaker, and those that try to follow the rules of correct classical Latin pronunciation are almost never consistent (and who knows exactly how the Romans spoke anyway?). Even when the name is in honor of an individual or place, the Latin suffix that is applied may create a word that does not “sound right” when pronounced in the same way as that of the honoree.

This is not meant to discourage anyone from the study of the correct pronunciation of plant names or to not strive to pronounce them properly. The lesson here is to not fear these words and to pronounce them as best you can. In fact, it is more important to spell them correctly than it is to pronounce them in a way that will please everybody.

Being what many consider to be the largest of all plant families, the orchids are divided into subfamilies, tribes and subtribes for the purpose of organizing genera that have similar characteristics. Orchidists frequently refer to these as alliances or breeding groups.

HYBRIDS  There are thousands of orchid hybrids, too. In fact, more than 120,000 hybrids have been registered with the Royal Horticultural Society, which is the official register for orchid hybrids. To help sort them out, orchid hybrid registration employs the concept of grex, which is the Latin word for a flock or herd. It indicates the offspring of a cross regardless of the particular parents involved. For example, Paphiopedilum St. Swithin is the grex name given to every Paphiopedilum that is produced by crossing the species Paph. rothschildianum and Paph. philippinense, regardless of the particular plant of either species that was used to produce the seed.

An individual plant within a grex may have a unique cultivar name. When used in print, it follows the name of the grex and is included in single quotation marks. All vegetatively produced progeny (division or mericlone) of a cultivar carry the same cultivar name and share any flower quality awards that the cultivar may receive. 

NEW CHANGES  The orchid family, being so large, has experienced plenty of taxonomic revision through the decades, yet recently it seems to occur at a more rapid pace than ever. Much of this is due to the fact that most taxonomic study is now done on the molecular level. Even the Cattleya alliance, long a sacred cow in the world of orchids, has experienced recent major taxonomic revision as DNA evidence proves relationships that the eye cannot see.

It is fair to ask why any of this is important to the average orchid hobbyist. After all, “What’s in a name?”

Most importantly, knowing an orchid’s proper name can provide you with clues on how to successfully grow it. In the case of an unflowered hybrid, parentage can instruct you on what the flowers may look like. I think it is also important for orchid hobbyists to appreciate which plants in their collection have a unique genetic makeup (those that are from seedling populations) and that are part of a large vegetative swarm (those that are divisions or mericlones).

Finally, the purpose of it all is to provide a means for clear communication of information using a system that also delineates relationships. The plants and animals do not care what we call them.

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