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MPNS FAQs

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Names and taxonomy

Finding out more


What can I search for?

You can search for any name that you might find in a medicinal plant reference. It could be:

  • a scientific name – a species, a genus or even just a specific epithet (the species name without the genus)
  • a pharmaceutical or drug name - including Chinese (pinyin) and Ayurvedic names
  • a common name

The search term must be at least three characters long.

Wildcard searches allow for variation in spelling: simply use an asterisk ‘*’ or question mark ‘?’ in place of letters:

  • * matches zero or more letters
  • ? matches only one letter

Why can’t I find a medicinal moss, lichen or fungus? 

MPNS currently only covers flowering plants and ferns (vascular plants).

It does not record names of mosses (bryophytes), algae, fungi, or lichen although we may include some of these other groups in the future.


Which plants are included? What is a medicinal plant?

All plants included in the MPNS Resource have been cited as having medicinal use in at least one of the references covered by MPNS. 

References currently represented within the MPNS Resource

Please note that:

  • species which are not themselves explicitly cited as having a medicinal use but which contain infraspecies which are cited as being medicinal are also included in MPNS.
  • ALL infraspecies belonging to a species cited as having medicinal use are also included even if not explicitly cited in the medicinal literature. The intention is to enable users to review the evidence for each subspecies or variety of that species.

MPNS make no claims that a plant has medicinal properties, simply that the references cited state this.  Inclusion of a plant name in the MPNS Resource should not be taken as an endorsement of any medicinal use or efficacy.

Plants considered to have medicinal use may well be absent from MPNS because our Resource does not yet include a reference indicating this medicinal use. New references continue to be added to MPNS and we seek suggestions of significant and more reliable references for future inclusion.

At present we are only collecting names of vascular plants.


Why is the plant I’m looking for not listed in the results?

Plant names of any kind that are stored in MPNS and that match your search term can be viewed under each of the expandable results links: one for each type of plant name.

If you do not see what you are looking for it may be because:

  • The name that you are looking for may appear under one of the other headings. For example, if you searched “chamomil”, then closely matched names will appear under their corresponding headings. For example the common names “chamomile’ and ‘camomille’ will appear under ‘Common or Pharmaceutical names’ and scientific names with the genus ‘Chamomilla’ will appear under both ‘Scientific names as used in medicinal plant references’ and ‘Scientific names found in Kew’s taxonomic resources’. You might also prefer to click ‘View all records relating to your search in a combined display’ to view a table of all matches that can be filtered.
  • You searched for a scientific name that is now considered to be a synonym. Look for the name under the ‘Scientific names as used in medicinal plant references’ link. If it isn’t there select each Accepted scientific name in turn and look under the ‘Scientific synonyms’ tab, or check under the ‘View all records relating to your search in a combined display’ link.
  • You have limited your search to either scientific or non-scientific names using the drop-down menu to the right of the search box. Try your search again with ‘All Names’ selected.
  • You have spelt the name differently to the way that it is spelt in the original reference(s) cited and thus as it is spelt in the MPNS Resource. This possibility is minimised by the fuzzy matching employed by the portal.
  • Your list returns so many results that you cannot see the name you are looking for. Try narrowing your search by typing in a more precise term or by using the filters under ‘View all records relating to your search in a combined display’.  
  • The medicinal plant you are searching for is genuinely not cited in any of the medicinal references covered by MPNS to date (see ‘What should I do if my plant is not yet included in MPNS?’ below).

What should I do if my plant is not yet included in MPNS?

If the plant that you are looking for is genuinely not covered by any of the medicinal references covered by MPNS to date, then we would welcome your suggestions for inclusion and the reference source(s) that you propose we include.  To find out how to contact MPNS please refer to details at the foot of this page.

For your immediate use there are other taxonomic resources available which cover a wider range of plants and aim to resolve questions you may have about the scientific nomenclature of those plants.

Three taxonomic resources which you can use (and the order in which to use them) are outlined under How is the 'Accepted name' chosen?


What does it mean if my search term is 'cited in 0 medicinal references'?

On occasion the number of medicinal references indicated will be zero. For example searching MPNS V7 using the Latin binomial 'Valeriana alternifolia' will report that NO medicinal references cite that name. Nevertheless the search does return MPNS records. This will occur where you have searched on a scientific name recognised by Kew to be a parent, infraspecific name or synonym of a medicinal plant included in MPNS but which has not itself been cited in any of the medicinal references covered to date.

Expanding on the example above, Kew’s taxonomic resources report several infraspecific names with genus ‘Valeriana’ and species ‘alternifolia’ as being synonyms of Valeriana officinalis L. which MPNS has found cited in multiple medicinal plant references. Consequently the results show 1 Plant (Valeriana officinalis L.) and 9 scientific synonyms, all subspecies of Valeriana alternifolia.


What languages or alphabets are represented in the MPNS Portal?

All names in Roman script are recorded from publications covered to date regardless of what language the name is in. However, the language or the country where the name is used is not indicated. We are working on recording some names in other characters/scripts, but only a small number of these are currently displayed in the portal.


What are the different name types/categories recognised by MPNS?

MPNS recognises a number of different classes of medicinal plant name. Whilst it is possible to search the MPNS portal using names belonging to any of these classes, the results displayed may vary according to the class of name that you use. The classes of name recognised by MPNS are:

Scientific names

These names are formally published according to strict rules to ensure that a single name can always be referred back to a description and a physical plant ‘type’ specimen (herbarium voucher) for verification of the intended species or infraspecies. The meaning of a Scientific name is therefore fixed (tied forever to the identity, DNA and chemistry of the original type specimen(s)). In contrast, names from all other categories may be used by different people to refer to more than one plant, or change in meaning over time, with no means of clarifying which is the plant that was intended. See also: How are scientific names formed?

Scientific names have a taxonomic status which can change as taxonomists review the relationships between plants. The main taxonomic status types are ‘Accepted’ and ‘Synonym’:

  • Accepted name: This is the scientific name currently judged by taxonomists to be the correct name for a given plant. It is the most reliable name to use for a plant, but the accepted name can change if, for example, a plant in one genus is moved to another genus following DNA analysis that shows the plant to be more closely related to that group. The plant then needs a new name to be published and the currently accepted name becomes a synonym. See also: How is the 'Accepted name' chosen?
  • Scientific synonyms: All properly published scientific names which are not currently recognised as accepted are synonyms. Although these are not the currently accepted name for the plant, they still link to a formal publication and specimen and can be traced to the accepted name and so are reliable, but may not link to up-to-date information about the plant.            

MPNS also recognises another class of name: ‘Scientific names as used in medicinal plant references’. See What are ‘Scientific names as used in medicinal plant references'.

Non-scientific names

All names for plants used in the medicinal plant literature are captured by MPNS. The types of non-scientific names included are:

  • Pharmaceutical names: Commonly used in pharmacopoeias, e.g. ‘Panacis Quinquefolii Radix’. Be aware that some pharmaceutical names are written in Latin and appear as binomials, but are not scientific plant names and may be associated with more than one plant.
  • Common, drug, Pinyin and other names: regardless of the script employed e.g. ‘American ginseng’, ‘サンヤク’.

How are scientific names formed?

Scientific names are written in Latin and use a standardised binomial form. All species have a scientific name including a genus, species and author citation indicating the person or people who published that name, in a standardised abbreviated form.

Example: Panax (genus) + quinquefolius (species epithet) + L. (author: Linnaeus)

Full species name: Panax quinquefolius L.

The names of infraspecies (e.g. varieties or subspecies) will include additional components indicating that the plant is a subset of a species. These are placed after the main part of the name and are formed of a rank (e.g. var. meaning variety), infraspecific epithet, and author citation for the full infraspecific name. 

Example: Panax quinquefolius L.

+ var. (rank) + americanus (infraspecific epithet) + Raf. (author: Rafinesque)

Full infraspecific name: Panax quinquefolius L. var. americanus Raf.

NB: This format is necessary but not sufficient for a name to be considered a scientific plant name.  See definition for ‘scientific names’ under What are the different name types/categories recognised by MPNS?


What are ‘Scientific names as used in medicinal plant references’?

‘Scientific names as used in medicinal plant references’ are those scientific names cited in a medicinal plant reference, exactly as they are spelt in that publication, including any misspellings, abbreviations or variations.

All ‘scientific names as used in medicinal plant references’ are linked by MPNS to the corresponding scientific name in Kew’s taxonomic resources and consequently, where possible, to the accepted scientific name of that plant. On rare occasions it has not been possible to make this link and the ‘Accepted scientific name’ in these instances reads ‘Awaiting MPNS review’.


How is the 'Accepted name' chosen?

A number of taxonomic databases for scientific plant names already exist covering different subsets of plants and each with a slightly different purpose and audience. Each of these databases connects a given scientific name with what is considered the taxonomically correct or 'accepted' name at that time.

Many of these databases are actively maintained by scientific institutions, such as Kew, and these require the input of plant taxonomists worldwide to keep abreast of new plants and new research about the systematic relationships among known plants. 10,000 changes to plant names are published in the scientific literature every year.

MPNS follows the taxonomic and nomenclatural decisions recorded in the following resources in the order given:

1) The World Checklist of Selected Plant Families

This resource has been developed over the last 18 years at Kew with guidance and advice from more than 150 botanical specialists worldwide. It contains worldwide species lists for each plant family. For all species in any of the included families, one can discover geographical distribution and full scientific synonymy, i.e. cross references to all of the scientific names for each plant (except misapplied and invalid names).

The resource is split into two parts.

  • Published data: Peer-reviewed accounts of 173 plant families are available online including all monocotyledon families and c. 33% of all plant species. Peer review ensures that these represent clear international agreement regarding the genera recognised and the accepted names employed.
  • Unpublished data: MPNS also presents unpublished data from the World Checklist not yet available online. These families are work in progress: many family accounts are now completely compiled and await peer review.  Other families still require research and collaboration.

The taxonomy embedded within the World Checklist (from both published and unpublished data) is increasingly visible via Plants of the World Online.

2) The Plant List (TPL)

If no match is available in the World Checklist then MPNS uses The Plant List, which takes names and taxonomic judgements from a number of different taxonomic resources and is more comprehensive in some areas. 

The Plant List was built in collaboration with the Missouri Botanical Garden and others by merging various databases. It was the first working list of all known plant species and aimed to be comprehensive for all species of vascular plants and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts). The Plant List is known to have gaps, duplications and errors.  Furthermore some names derived from the databases merged have no indication of whether they are accepted names or synonyms. The Plant list was created in 2010 as a ‘best effort’ aiming to demonstrate progress and stimulate further work. Version 1 was released in December 2010 and was updated to Version 1.1 in September 2013.

The Plant List is not being maintained and has not been updated since 2013. It is thus increasingly out of date and unreliable. Less than 10% of the taxonomic judgements in the MPNS Resource derive from TPL and MPNS actively refer names to the World Checklist for resolution to reduce our reliance on TPL over time.


What is the 'taxonomic confidence' level?

Studies of plant systematic relationships are ongoing and modern data derived from chemical or molecular (DNA) studies has led to considerable improvements in our understanding of these evolutionary relationships. This has consequences for the nomenclature of these plants as species are reclassified.  A species may be moved from one Genus to another, two or more species may be merged or one species split into several new species.  Our understanding of these relationships and coverage in taxonomic catalogues is variable from family to family and from region to region.

MPNS will, as far as possible, offer a modern taxonomy and nomenclature for each plant included and is regularly refreshing this taxonomy between each Version of the MPNS Resource.  Where we are aware that a taxonomic decision is based upon less reliable or less comprehensive data we wish to indicate this to users by providing the relative confidence associated with the taxonomy of each plant.

All plants are labelled according to one of three confidence levels:


High confidence indicates a taxonomy and nomenclature derived from a taxonomic account of an entire family which has undergone peer review.


Medium confidence indicates that taxonomic research has been completed and is globally comprehensive as far as we know but which has not yet undergone peer review.


Low confidence indicates that taxonomic research is still ongoing and that there is a greater likelihood of error, incomplete records and future change.


Why does the Accepted name shown in MPNS today differ from the name shown in previous versions?

MPNS seeks to provide the most up-to-date and authoritative taxonomy available for the medicinal plants included.   We base our taxonomy upon the most reliable and, where possible, actively-curated taxonomic databases available. (See also: How is the 'Accepted name' chosen?).

Every year 10,000 changes are published regarding the names of vascular plants: 2,000 species are discovered (new names), 4,000 species are moved from one Genus to another (name changes) and 4,000 species are either split into several species or merged with another (warranting multiple name changes). The World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (WCS) is actively curated to reflect these changes.

Each release of the MPNS Resource is refreshed to reflect these changes and improvements to the plant taxonomy reflected in WCS. MPNS sponsors and prioritises the compilation and correction of names and taxonomy of medicinal plants in WCS.

Each Version of the MPNS Resources thus has a static reliable taxonomy that you can cite. Each subsequent release will reflect a) additions to MPNS – as we include increasing numbers of medicinal plant reference and b) improvements in taxonomic understanding.


Why does the Accepted name shown in MPNS differ from other databases such as The Plant List?

MPNS seeks to provide the most up-to-date and authoritative taxonomy available for the medicinal plants included, based upon the most reliable and, where possible, actively-curated taxonomic databases. This means that in some cases the taxonomy presented in MPNS will differ from some of the better-known taxonomic resources that are available online (such as The Plant List).

For example, The Plant List is static (not actively curated) and neither reflects the enhancements and changes to taxonomic classification that have occurred since 2012 when TPL data was last brought together nor has it been corrected for its known errors and gaps. 


How should I cite the MPNS portal?

Please cite the portal as:

'Medicinal Plant Names Services Portal, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Version #, accessed on dd/mm/yyyy'


How can I get involved in the work of MPNS? 

Become a Partner

MPNS does not intend to duplicate work that others are already doing in gathering and disseminating more detailed information, for example, on plant chemistry, toxicity or trade data. Instead we propose that MPNS becomes part of the medicinal plant information landscape, serving as an intelligent gateway to these multiple resources, and helping them to become accessible, regardless of the plant names used by the resource or by those looking for information.

Since the MPNS project began we have been working closely with Professor Uwe Schippmann who built and curates the Medicinal Plant Resources of the World (MAPROW) database. MAPROW contains drug, pharmaceutical and common names alongside plant part information from medicinal plant references including pharmacopoeias. It is used by the IUCN International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP).

We are currently talking to potential partners, but are interested in hearing from other data managers.

Please contact us at mpns@kew.org to find out more.

Become a member of our User Group

The MPNS User Group has been fundamental in establishing effective information services and has a wide representation both geographically and across research sectors and industries.

We held two workshops in November and December 2014 to seek feedback on the services we offer with representatives from medicines regulatory agencies, the pharmaceutical sector, and herbal medicine practitioners and suppliers.

The needs of clients have driven development of our services by helping to prioritise the addition of new content, shaping the design and scope of the services, and ensuring that we consider their practical constraints and business environments.

We are actively seeking further individuals and organisations that are willing to offer their time and advice. Please contact us at mpns@kew.org to find out more.


My question is not answered here – how can I contact MPNS?

If you have further questions about the portal, or MPNS in general, please get in touch.

Email: mpns@kew.org

Medicinal Plant Names Services (MPNS)
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Richmond
Surrey
TW9 3AB
UK

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