Plant Taxonomy in Botanic Gardens

Waheed Arshad, PhD
January 26, 2024

Why taxonomy?

Humans have been occupied by the desire to understand our natural environment since ancient times, spurring many discoveries and new disciplines. One such discipline is the biological classification of plants, also known as plant systematics or plant taxonomy. The work on plant systematics through the ages also gave rise to the necessity for a universal system for naming organisms.

As an example, the “English oak” has many names. In English, it is also referred to as the “European oak” or “common oak,” and all the other countries where the tree is native will have their own common names for this same tree species. The confusion caused by attributing different names to the same plant species was an unresolved challenge for centuries.

The Introduction of Binomial Nomenclature

Cover page of Species Plantarum by Carl Linnaeus, originally published in 1753
Species Plantarum (Latin for "The Species of Plants") by Carl Linnaeus, originally published in 1753, which lists every species of plant known at the time, classified into genera. It is the first work to consistently apply binomial names and was the starting point for the naming of plants. (2023, December 10). In Wikipedia.

The solution to this problem came in the 18th century, when Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus devised a resolution to the problem of naming plants, with a system known as binomial nomenclature.

As implied by its name, this naming system involves assigning two words to each organism. The initial word designates the genus, and the subsequent word signifies the species. Both words are italicized, with the first letter of the genus capitalized. As an example, the “English oak”, is given the scientific name Quercus robur. 

The Evolution of Plant Taxonomy

The grouping of plants by genus has since evolved into grouping organisms by higher ranks, such as family and order. This approach became more prevalent with the introduction of the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century which was followed by the introduction of evolutionary taxonomy.

Modern taxonomy incorporates evolutionary principles, which is an approach to classification that emphasizes the evolutionary relationships and common ancestry among organisms. In our modern classification, the English oak “Quercus robur” is placed in the kingdom of plants “Plantea”, the order of flowering plants ”Fagales”, the beech family “Fagaceae” and the oak genus “Quercus”. 

With plant taxonomy we have a structured framework that helps botanists and horticulturists identify and understand plant relationships, fostering collaboration in conservation efforts guiding botanical gardens in their role of preserving biodiversity.

If plant taxonomy is new to you or you would like to be refreshed on the topic, this presentation might be for you. Where did it all begin? Why do we use scientific names in the first place?

Plant Taxonomy and the Role of Botanic Gardens

Botanic gardens play a pivotal role in plant conservation, education, and research – as well as in cultural heritage. By maintaining meticulous plant records and databases, these institutions contribute significantly to global biodiversity efforts. But why is plant taxonomy so crucial in this context?

Accurate plant taxonomy serves as the backbone of any botanic garden's record-keeping. By understanding the relationships between plants, gardens can:

  • Ensure plants are correctly labeled and identified
  • Enhance visitor experiences with informative displays
  • Facilitate effective plant conservation efforts

The importance of Taxonomy

The Convention on Biological Diversity recognizes that taxonomy is fundamental to conserving biodiversity because you need to know what plants exist before making assessments on how threatened they are.

A growing number of botanic gardens are embracing technology to streamline their record-keeping operations. With plant taxonomy being a key cornerstone for healthy plant records, gardens can document details such as plant lineage, origin, and conservation status.

This not only aids in effective management but also enhances research initiatives, educational programs, and conservation efforts. By properly integrating plant taxonomy into their operations, botanic gardens will be better prepared to increase their impact both locally and globally. 

Beyond Names: The Future Landscape of Botanic Gardens

Taxonomy serves as a crucial instrument, benefiting not just botanical gardens but also contributing to our ongoing quest for a deeper understanding of the natural world. By leveraging new tools and technologies, botanic gardens are poised to make important contributions to plant conservation, research, and education.

As we journey forward, plant taxonomy acts as a critical foundation, leading botanic gardens toward a future where knowledge blooms, conservation thrives, and the rich tapestry of plant life continues to inspire generations to come.

Further readings

History of Plant Systematics, [Wikipedia]

Binomial nomenclature, [Wikipedia]

Charles Darwin's first sketch of an evolutionary tree

Charles Darwin's first sketch of an evolutionary tree from his Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837). Darwin Tree 1837.Png. In Wikipedia
Portland Japanese Garden, Oregon, United States
Portland Japanese Garden, Washington Park, Portland, Oregon, United States

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