What’s in a (Plant) Name?

by Celia Kutcher
Contemplate for a moment your copy of the Jepson Manual.
At 1400 pages and 5 pounds, it surely qualifies as a massive tome.  Its immediate predecessor, Munz’ Flora (either the all-California or Southern-California volumes) are almost as weighty.  Their several predecessors are also weighty.
In addition to these three inclusive references, my bookshelves hold several dozen smaller books on various aspects of the California flora — and so do yours, I’ll warrant.
Perusal of the library stacks at any large botanic garden reveals many tomes, mostly massive, on the flora of most parts of the earth, as well as shelves and shelves of bound reams of botanical literature.
Googling “California native plants” produces a billion or so references, which ultimately are based on the volumes on the shelves.
Why has so much time and scholarship, as represented by the google references, by the paper and ink on the shelves, been devoted to knowing the names of California’s plants?
For many, the response may be “Because they’re there.”  Because we want to know about the natural world around us.
Because we think plants are neat, especially California’s plants. These may be reasons enough (for us plant lovers) for studying plants, and the natural world they help form, for learning the names of the plants.
But another reason, maybe the most important one in Southern California and especially Orange County, is that knowing the names of all the plants in an area may be one of the most important parts of preserving said area from development.
A case in point: the Conservation Biology Institute has reported that much of the remaining undeveloped area in southern Orange County is an ecological “hot spot,” one of 25 of global significance.  This land, mostly owned by Rancho Mission Viejo, is the last remaining stronghold for a number of endangered plants, animals, and the habitats that they interactively form.  The report was compiled by Institute biologists from work done over many years by many field researchers: people who wanted to know the names of the plants (and animals).
So what’s in a plant name?  A lot: history, botany, ethnology–and hope for preservation of natural lands into the future.

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