What’s in a name? If it’s a plant name, quite a lot, actually. Plant taxonomy, including carnivorous plant taxonomy, is the science that 1. identifies plant characteristics, 2. classifies those characteristics, and ultimately 3. describes them via a name. Frequently, Latin is used to describe unique characteristics as a way to differentiate species. The result is a name that doesn’t always roll off the tongue (try saying Nepenthes aristolochioides 10 times fast; ah-ris-ti-low-key-oy-dees), but is always rich in meaning. So, how do we classify carnivorous plants using taxonomy and determine an appropriate name?
Let’s start from the beginning:
Plants, animals, insects, bacteria, fungi, etc are all biologically unique in key ways. It’s these unique characteristics that allow us to group each creature into high level classifications at the Domain or Kingdom level on our taxonomic grid. This way, for example, all plants are grouped under “Plantae” while animals are kept separate under “Animalia.” As you drill deeper on a particular plant, you’ll continue to ask more and more specific questions about the plant’s physiology that will take you down different paths on the taxonomic grid. Another example: Does this Plantae produce flowers and seeds? If so, it’s an angiosperm. This question helps you group the plant by Phylum, and filter out non-flowering types. Filtering continues down to the “species” or “subspecies” level, and results in a full taxonomic name that most accurately describes your plant.
- Plant identification compares unknown plants to known plants to identify characteristics that can be used to assign the plant to a certain taxonomic group.
- Plant classification places plants into groups that demonstrate similarities between all of the members of that group. An example being the angiosperm question, asked above. For a carnivorous plant like a B-52 Venus Flytrap (AKA Dionaea muscipula B-52), our taxonomic classification would look something like this:
Kingdom: Plantae (creatures here are photosynthetic, using chlorophyll to produce energy from sunlight, have cellular walls made of cellulose, and they are fixed in one place… until they evolve otherwise 🌱😈🌱)
Phylum: Anthophyta (are angiosperms/flowering plants)
Class: Magnoliopsida (they are dicotyledones, as determined by the type of leaf venation, number of flower parts, and number of cotyledons (baby seed leaves) produced at time of germination)
Order: Caryophyllales (they have free-central or basal placentation)
Family: Droseraceae (they omnomnom insects/are carnivorous plants with traps to catch prey)
Genus: Dionaea (well, this is starting to look familiar – all plants here have marginal spines that assist in catching their prey)
Species: Dionaea muscipula (getting warmer… Dionaea muscipula is a monotypical species, meaning that there is only one species within this genus)
Subspecies, Variety, and Forms: B-52 (Bingo! B-52 is a cultivar, or human-cultivated variety of Dionaea muscipula. Subspecies, varieties and forms aren’t used for all carnivorous plants, but are common among species like the North American Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia)
3. Plant description, finally, formalizes the description of a new plant species and publishes it via a scientific paper following the International Code of Nomenclature guidelines. Following this, a new plant name is registered with the International Plant Names Index.
Cool. So why all the funky names with difficult pronunciations? “It’s all Greek to me!” you exclaim… and you’d be close. It’s mostly Latin. Why Latin? Well, Latin is a dead language, so connotations and the meanings of words aren’t evolving with a culture. This keeps plant descriptions clear and consistent over generations of botanists. There’s also a ton of historical research and bodies of work already completed in Latin, giving us a historical precedent to base future discoveries on top of. Also, because Carl Linneaus said so, and he’s kind-of the father of taxonomy.
So, next time you’re staring at a Cephalotus follicularis (sef-a-lotus fall-lick-ularis), wondering “why the heck have they made this so hard to pronounce?!” just keep in mind that there’s a method to the madness. And you probably need to be a botanist to fully understand it. And even then it’s confusing. And it changes. So go easy on yourself, and just make some flashcards.