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New Prairie Plant Names

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New Latin and Common Names

New Latin and Common Names for Ohio Prairie Plant Species

Since Linnaeus, biological species have been assigned proper, recognized Latin names; thereby unifying the organisms being referred to.

Recently, the Natural Resources Conservation Service has compiled an extensive database and listing of new and revised Latin names for plants. They have also updated and revised most recognized or assigned common names for these species.

Be advised, these changes can be confounding, digressing in many cases from earlier, well-accepted and published names. Why make these changes, then? For at least two reasons:

A) Modern genomic testing (determination of genetic nucleotide sequences) has definitively proven that many older names and classifications are biologically invalid. Case in point: Formerly, there were a good number of prairie plants in the genus Aster, most famous of these was New England Aster, Aster novae-angliae. But genomic testing has shown that the North American plants formerly assigned to Aster are not actually related to the authentic Aster species of the Old World. New genera were required. Today, New England Aster is Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. A good number of other former “Asters” are now in that new genus. Several other asters have been assigned other new genera, such as Flat-top Aster, formerly Aster umbellatus, now Doellingeria umbellata.  

B) Common names of prairie and other plants have varied greatly, depending on local usages and traditions; often without an accurate reference to the plant’s biology. The newly-assigned common names are a laudable effort to bring continent-wide uniformity to plant common names.

It will take some time for both the new Latin and common names to come into ubiquitous usage. The Ohio Prairie Association will especially attempt to use the new Latin names wherever possible. The new common names may take some time and effort. OPA will encourage their incremental adoption and usage.

Many common name changes involve only deletion of hyphens or other minor changes. Others, however, are marked changes. For example, Eryngium yuccifolium had the former common name of Rattlesnake-master. Inasmuch as rattlesnakes are simply not important members of most tallgrass prairies where this species naturally grows, and there is but historical anecdotal evidence that the plant might have been formerly used to treat rattlesnake bites, a more accurate universal common name has been assigned: Button Eryngo. The flower of this plant looks something like a button.

A few species have had everything changed, as with the former Grass-leaved Goldenrod, Solidago graminifolia. Now, it’s Flat-top Goldentop, Euthamia graminifolia.

It will take some time — and good effort — for all of this to come into generalized usage. But biological nomenclature has always been revised and updated as new things are learned about species. The Ohio Prairie Association supports good biology and endorses the new names; and will use them wherever appropriate. We will be incrementally updating each of our species descriptions.


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