By Adam Goodman
Of the Post-Dispatch

July 29, 1999

Edited by Virginia Baldwin Gilbert

Don't know a Rosa gallica from a Hemerocallis flava?

Or even an Acer saccharum from an Abies concolor?

No problem.

The Missouri Botanical Garden this week welcomes 265 specialists in botanical nomenclature who are here to help.

As a prelude to next week's much-larger 16th International Botanical Congress at America's Center downtown, these botanists are spending this week discussing and voting on proposed changes to the rules that govern how plants are named.

Dressed in everything from T-shirts and shorts to dress shirts and ties, the scientists stream into the garden's Schoenberg Auditorium at 9 each morning. They came to St. Louis from all over: Berlin, Sydney, Toronto, Buffalo, N.Y.

As each proposal is projected on a large screen for consideration, anyone who asks is given a microphone and a chance to speak.

"It's a pretty democratic way to do things," said Fred Barrie, assistant curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Barrie is the recorder for this year's nomenclature sessions.

Even the driest discussion can quickly explode loudly enough to wake some of the attendees who doze off intermittently. Each session's common recipe: take a dose of science, a smattering of history and mix in a generous amount of rhetoric and hyperbole.

During one 45-minute discussion on Monday, William Anderson, a professor and curator at the University of Michigan, warned his peers that one proposal was both "a Pandora's box" and a "Trojan horse."

Another botanist told the group: "If you like to drive through the tunnel with no headlights, that's fine. But I'm not driving in your car."

Nothing, it seems -- not even when to use a hyphen -- escapes the group's attention.

Every six years, the botanists gather to consider changes to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, created at the First International Botanical Congress in Paris in 1867. That code, now about 150 pages long, is the guidebook used by botanists all over the globe to name and index plants.

This year, the group is considering 218 proposed changes to the code. More than 30 of those deal strictly with spelling and other minor changes, including six on the proper use of a hyphen.

But some proposals are much more controversial and far-reaching, such as consideration of a new international registration system for names and a new preference system that would give certain types of names priority over others.

"It's not a trivial matter," Anderson explained. "If we don't have names that we can use, then we can have chaos."

He's not kidding.

With botanists the world over working to name and catalog the estimated 250,000 plant species out there, the potential for confusion is tremendous. That may not seem significant to backyard gardeners, but don't forget that many industries and professions -- among them farmers, doctors, lawyers pharmacists and ecologists -- depend on the credibility of those names.

Botanists' lasting passion for nomenclature shouldn't be surprising, says veteran botanist Richard Brummitt, who is attending his seventh botanical congress. Brummitt works at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, better known as Kew Gardens.

"Names always generate emotion," Brummitt said. "They are things people use, and people get very attached to a name."

So, what plants did those Latin names stand for?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet ..." - William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet"

For those who may have wondered about those plant names in the accompanying article:

Rosa gallica is a French rose.

Hemerocallis flava is a lemon lily.

Acer saccharum is a sugar maple.

Abies concolor is a white fir.

All are based on Carl Linnaeus' work of 250 years ago that sought to standardize and limit plant names to two Latin words. The first word design ates the genus to which the plant is classified, and the second is a species within that genus.