The Fascinating World of Plant Names

The Fascinating World of Plant Names

Did you know that there are approximately 1.4 million different names for plants on Earth? Surprisingly, there are only around 300,000 existing species. This means that there is a multitude of plant names floating around like a linguistic Tower of Babel.

So, what’s the story behind this naming frenzy?

In some cases, it’s simply a matter of scientists discovering slight variations of the same species. In other instances, new descriptions of species found in diverse locations contribute to the naming confusion. Changes in scientific understanding of species relationships also play a role. And of course, human error is always a factor.

But don’t worry, because there’s someone working tirelessly to bring order to this chaos. Meet Kanchi Gandhi, the senior nomenclatural registrar and a key player in the global community of experts dedicated to ensuring that botanists speak the same language when referring to specific plants.

According to Michael Dosmann, keeper of the living collections at Arnold Arboretum, Kanchi is an exceptional nomenclaturist who understands and referees the rules for naming new plant species. Dosmann adds that this is not an easy task, as it requires a deep understanding of the complex guidelines outlined in the “International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants” — also known as “The Shenzhen Code.”

While it may seem excessive to have a 203-page rulebook, these guidelines serve an important purpose. Not only do they bring uniformity to the field of botany, but they also provide vital information about a plant species, such as its relatives, where it was found, and even the gender of the discoverer.

Before the advent of Carl Linnaeus’ two-part naming system in the mid-18th century, plants were known by lengthy descriptive terms. Linnaeus revolutionized the field by assigning each plant a two-part name, consisting of a genus and species. This innovation allowed for more precision in plant identification and classification.

Since Linnaeus, scientists have created over a million additional names, leading to widespread confusion. To address this issue, the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, based in Bratislava, Slovakia, was established. Kanchi Gandhi is a member of the association’s Committee for Vascular Plants, which ensures that universal standards are followed by scientists worldwide.

Despite the complexity of his role, Kanchi remains dedicated to sharing knowledge and maintaining order in the world of plant nomenclature. He spends long hours at his Harvard Herbarium office, tirelessly working to ensure that the botanical community stays up to date with the latest plant discoveries.

His work extends far beyond just naming plants. Kanchi serves as the nomenclature and etymology editor for the “Flora of North America” project and is also involved with the International Plant Names Index and the journal Rhodora. Scientists from all over the world seek his expertise when confronted with perplexing name issues.

For Kanchi, it’s not about the glamour or recognition. He lives a simple life and finds fulfillment in sharing his wealth of knowledge with others. His dedication and willingness to help have earned him the respect and admiration of his peers. In fact, several botanists have even named plants after him, following the international naming rules, of course.

Kanchi Gandhi, the unsung hero of plant names, continues to make significant contributions to the field of botany. His work ensures that when botanists discuss a particular plant, they are all on the same page. And for that, we are eternally grateful.

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