What's in a (plant) name?

Plant taxonomy is the science that finds, identifies, describes, classifies, and names plants. Evolutionary biologist Professor Stephen Hopper considers every plant name to represent a hypothesis on plant relationships. This hypothesis is tested every time someone tries to identify a plant, which makes the field of scientific classification one of the most rigorously tested of all scientific fields.

Some plant names have remained unchanged for over 200 years. This is because sound classifications stand the test of time and are a testament to the work of early botanists such as Robert Brown (1773–1858). If a name is changed it is because our knowledge of the plant in question has advanced to the point we can no longer justify maintaining existing classifications.

In Australia, less than 15 percent of plant names have changed in the last 50 years and many of these have occurred in the last 20 years following the advent of DNA technology. DNA data has enabled us to resolve relationships that may have been in doubt for centuries.

A major project is underway, coordinated by the Genomics for Australian Plants working group, to generate enormous amounts of DNA sequence data for every Australian plant species, which will provide a rigorous test of all existing classifications. Eventually, we will achieve a stable classification for all Australian plants. 

Read more at The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney (Russell Barrett)

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