The challenges of using Latin scientific names effectively
Whilst Latin scientific names are our only way to refer rigorously and unambiguously to a plant, the use of a Latin scientific name does not in itself guarantee effective communication. A number of obstacles exist to the appropriate use of such names – especially for non-botanists – and a significant percentage of the current literature and even legislation contains ambiguous or misleading use of names. Browse our list of known obstacles.
One plant can have multiple names
It is estimated that there are around 370,000 species of vascular plant in the world, of which c. 6,000 are commonly used in western medicine. 1.6 million different Latin scientific names have been formally published for these 370,000 plants, i.e. there are many more names than plants. Some medicinal plants have been found to have as many as 50 alternative Latin scientific names (synonyms), which have been used in different countries, centuries and publications. Molecular, chemical, descriptive and other information about a plant may have been published or recorded in a database under any of its synonyms. Research workers, pharmacovigilance professionals and health regulators need some means to find all of this information and pull it together. Botanical expertise is required to map these names onto one another reliably.
The same name can refer to more than one plant species
It is quite common, particularly in the past, for the same name to be published for quite different species. Before large botanical institutions such as Kew started to collect the details of the publication of new plant names and circulate them in a bound index, it was quite easy for botanists to be unaware of all names that had already been published in a particular plant group. They might then choose the same name for a new and different species. These multiple publications of the same name are known as ‘homonyms’. The first publication has priority, and new names need to be chosen and published for any subsequent uses of that name (the later homonyms). Even so, some later homonyms have persisted in common use, leading to confusion about what is actually meant by a particular plant name. Publications and legislation that include a plant name without an author could be referring to any one of the homonyms and are therefore ambiguous.
Names continue to change
New species are discovered, our knowledge of existing plants improves and our understanding of the relationships among plants evolves, facilitating our ability to predict shared chemical pathways. One result of this expanding knowledge base and greater understanding is that 10,000 changes to scientific names are published each year. Keeping abreast of these changes is time-consuming, but necessary.
Studies of the plants in one country will use different data and arrive at different opinions compared with studies of the same plants in other countries. Studies published 50 years ago may present views about taxonomic relationships which are no longer valid. Thus different publications contain conflicting opinions as to which scientific names should be used and which are synonyms of which.
Names can be misapplied
When printing was expensive, and botanists were writing the first floras for countries, they often only wrote short descriptions and rarely illustrated all, if any, of the plants. These floras would be used by other botanists working in neighbouring countries or areas when they wrote their floras. It was quite possible for them to think that a particular plant in their area fitted the description of a plant in the first flora, and the second author would then use the name in that flora and expand the description from the material that he was examining in the second country. It is not uncommon for the second use of that plant name with its longer description to be adopted by subsequent botanists, and if the second author had been incorrect in his assumption that he was talking about the same plant as the first author then the ‘misapplied’ use of the name would be propagated around the globe and across the centuries.
Names can be meaningless
Pharmacopoeias, medical literature and even legislation can use names that have not been formally published and are therefore meaningless.
No central reference
Where do you find out which scientific name to use? How might you discover all possible synonyms to have been used for a given plant? There is currently no single reference resource that will resolve all enquiries about the names of medicinal plants. MPNS aims to fill this gap.
Naming a plant is not the same as identifying it!
It isn’t uncommon for plants and herbal material to be incorrectly identified and have the wrong name associated with them. Care should be taken to check the identity of any material against published descriptions and characteristics. In addition, the best research retains a voucher specimen for each sample studied, so that the identification can be verified if necessary.
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