The Plant List

The name of a plant is the key to communicating about it and to finding information about its uses, conservation status, relationships and place within ecosystems.  The Plant List

The Plant List is a new resource for plant nerds and plant-nerd-amateurs like me. It covers all known species of plants.

It lists 1,040,426 scientific plant names of which 298,900 are accepted names. Common names are not included, not one, and this is not a key to identification.

So what interest does this site have for me? I’m not in the plant-naming business. I am trying to identify the plants in my area.

The purpose of The Plant List is to help people use the correct name so that, as suggested in the quotation above, we can learn more about it. Without knowing the correct name of the plant, any information I search for on whether birds or bats eat its fruit, for instance, would be meaningless. I need the correct name to learn whether it is native or introduced, whether it has medicinal properties, and so forth.

How I plan to use the site

Recently I posted some images of a small tree or shrub I couldn’t identify to Flickr, with a link to Facebook. Kindly botanists at both places helped identify the plant as Casearia commersoniana in the family Salicaceae. I’m confident that the botanist who identified the plant to name is correct, but I have the plant in hand, or rather in my back yard, and so I’d like to do two things with this site: 1) find a complete description of the plant so I can compare it with what I have and thereby learn more botany, and 2) use the links so handily put into one place to learn what researchers already know about the plant.

At The Plant List home page, I enter the name Casearia commersoniana in the handy Search box in the right-hand column. Immediately, I’m taken to a page that tells me that Casearia commersoniana Cambess. is an accepted name. Here’s a screen shot of the top part of what I see (so don’t expect the links to work!)

Top of page for Casearia commersonia at The Plant List

I see three stars to the left of the name – two are dark green and one is light green. This means that the people who put together the site have a 2-out-of-3 level of confidence that this name is indeed an accepted name (see how cautious botanists are!).

I also see a list of synonyms (14) and links at the bottom of the page for further information about this species. (Another screen shot.)

Links to More Information at The Plant List

The very first thing I want to do with this is go to the original publication cited at the top of the page – Fl. Bras. Merid. (1830). Since this is a journal I’m not familiar with, I follow the link to IPNI and learn that the full name of the journal is Flora Brasiliae Meridionalis.

Since the publication came out in 1830, I’m hoping I can find the original paper at the Biodiversity Heritage Library. You can see that it is listed as one of the sources of further information at the bottom of the page. (Ah, yes, it’s there. In Latin. Should have known.)

So this starts me on my way toward my first goal – to compare my plant with the original description. After I piece together what I can from the original paper, I’ll search for other publications that describe the plant. This way I learn more botany while confirming the identification of my plant.

My second goal will probably be easier to attain, but will still take some time. I’ll go through the other links on this page to put together a little story about the biology and the ecology of this particular plant.

None of this would be possible for a novice like me unless I knew its accepted name.

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About Mary

I spent a few years at sea, and I never came back from a cruise without having learned something new about the ocean or what lived in it. After retiring to Panama, I began to learn something new about the tropical savanna ecosystem nearly every day I stepped outside. I focused on plants, those marvelous signs of life. Now I'm in my second retirement, living in Sicily. I'm leaving my plant studies online for those who have found them useful.
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9 Responses to The Plant List

  1. Shelley says:

    A friend of mine discovered and described a new species of Gutierrezia, and just for fun I searched the Plant List for it. The description was published only two years ago, so I wasn’t surprised that it wasn’t there. However, the Plant List puts Gutierrezia in the family Compositae, which surprised me. I thought the accepted Latin name was now Asteraceae. This is interesting to me in light of the site’s caution regarding name confidence (the site doesn’t rank confidence in regards to family nomenclature). Any thoughts?

    • Mary says:

      Oh my goodness, Compositae. I have no idea why they’re using that name for the family rather than Asteraceae. They even say, and I quote:

      Genera and species of Angiosperms are presented in families following family circumscriptions in The Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, 2009. An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 161, 105–121.

      And APG III definitely uses Asteraceae, not Compositae. This shakes my confidence in the site, which seems otherwise so authoritative. I’m on my toes now and will look more critically at other things. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. They also use Leguminosae instead of Fabaceae. For both Leguminosae and Compositae, it seems this is a function of the databases they have sourced for these two large families. I checked a few plants whose names have changed recently and the correct nomenclature was shown, and there is an impressive list of contributors and project credentials with major input from Kew and Missouri.

    At any rate, I am very interested in this resource as a nomenclatural reference for my own publications – thanks, Mary!

    • Mary says:

      Ted,

      Thanks for your perspective. You’re no doubt right about the databases. I’m pretty sure that another online source I use a great deal – Tree Atlas of Panama – only very recently updated its families. The people who put the Plant List together say that it will not be edited, but there will be future editions. The family names may very well be updated in the next edition.

      Thanks again for commenting.

  3. Steve K. says:

    The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature specifically allows for nine exceptions for plant family nomenclature:

    Compositae (Asteraceae)
    Cruciferae (Brassicaceae)
    Gramineae (Poaceae)
    Guttiferae (Clusiaceae)
    Labiatae (Lamiaceae)
    Leguminosae (Fabaceae)
    Palmae (Arecaceae)
    Papilionaceae (Fabaceae)
    Umbelliferae (Apiaceae)

    I’m not a tropical botanist, but Palmae in particular seems to have widespread continuing usage, at least in my experience. And I suspect the use of ‘Compositae’ has remained, for whatever reason, more common amongst continental (or at least British) taxonomists than it has in the Americas.

    • Mary says:

      Ah!

      So they may not update those family names next time around, since the older names are quite acceptable. Good to know.

      Thank you, Steve.

  4. Shelley says:

    Interesting! Good to know about the exceptions allowed by ICBN.

  5. This is a great resource. Unfortunately, most gardeners do not know the botanical name of anything, but have no desire, energy to create and share with their visitors their botanical inventory.

    On the other hand if you depend as most from nurseries, you are doomed…At any rate
    knowing more, not less is my daily goal. Excellent post….

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