Sorting Botanical & Common Names

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This is a gateway to some outstanding work in the field of plant names which could only have been carried out with the help of the World Wide Web.

Would you be able to name every item in this photo in your own language ?
Click on the image and find out the names of one of these. Can you guess which just by seeing the name in the URL ?

If you cannot find the answer to your problem on our pages, contact us and ask questions. An e-mail link used to be found on the bottom of every one of our pages but had to be removed in order to limit "SPAM". Now you'll have to search for it using your imagination sorry but we have to protect ourselves. Alternatively you can check our list of resources our numerous references in print or online
. We have used many other online references as well. However we cannot carry all their information on our own site, we are strictly focusing on nomenclature (botanical and vernacular). This is the idea of a W.W.W. distributed resource.

There are groups of plants that have presented challenges to both experts and lay people for decades. Much confusion is reflected in the names in almost any language that one cares to study. We originally presented 4 examples in various stages of development.  Today the list of genera treated is much longer and growing every week. Fortunately not all species are in a state of botanical confusion. At this point (2005) we have pretty much done what we could on Prunus, Pisum, Raphanus etc. to name a few. Musa (bananas) and Citrus still remain to be done. For the foreseable future it looks like we will keep on consolidating the data as a whole and that Citrus & Musa will have to wait a few more years. We  point to a number of good references on the WWW that will satisfy most people (see our list of genera for a start).

For a basic introduction to the botanical Latin of scientific names Judy Gibson, botanist from the San Diego Natural History Museum - California - USA,  gave us permission to post her page on our server a number of years ago. This is a good intro that has not aged and will set the beginners on their way to bigger and better things. We cannot edit this page with our modern equipment without risking to disfigure it so be warned that most links from there will not work. Just use the "back" button of your browser.
For a more advanced treatment of taxonomy one can check
Guidelines on Biological Nomenclature  (Adobe Reader required or an html version is available via Google). Unfortunately this is no longer available. Wikipedia offers a substitute in various parts.
For yet a more detailed and complex example one can check Dr. John Wiersema's notes on the USDA GRIN database that we follow as close as possible for the foundation of our own database taxonomy. The justification for that choice is that this online database is the best example in the world that we know of a distributed database core or foundation.

The names we present on line (70 languages in 20 scripts) have been generated from our old local database and notes (compiled since the mid-eighties), checked against the references listed at the end of each page. Many words collected from web sites or suggested by people browsing our pages have been added. Needless to say, none of those lists is near completion. Not enough editing has been done yet. Eventually every word of each language will need to be checked by a native speaker of that language. We always seek volunteer editors for every of the 70 languages, especially those with "foreign scripts". Burmese, Hebrew, Khmer, Lao, Sinhala and the 12 main languages of India  present particularly great difficulties.

The idea is that by matching the known botanical names with common names in as many languages as possible clearer pictures start to emerge. The mistakes that have been perpetuated over the past decades also become obvious. Whether or not , once spotted, mistakes should be corrected is arguable. We believe that eventually correct names should be proposed in lieu of misleading, inaccurate or badly spelt alternatives. We aim to display as much of this process as possible.

This work is outstanding in the fact that original scripts are used. Although technology is very deficient in this area (still in 2005)  it is possible to "draw" lists with far more accuracy than when only the romanised words were used. We learnt very early in the research that the process of romanising introduces extra mistakes and that these must be eliminated very early in the compiling process.

Another outstanding characteristic of our listings is that we take into consideration older, out-of-date botanical names. These tend to be ignored by modern workers for the sake of simplification. We believe that, although many of these older names are undoubtedly out-of-date and out of favour by modern taxonomists, they teach us a lot about the previous generations and indirectly remain a dimly lit window on the rich biological diversity of the past. Given that our aim is to facilitate communication across cultures, languages, experts - lay people and generations it is very useful to have as many cross-referenced botanical names as possible so that despite their out of date Latin names older books can still be used for the valuable information they contain. Some of these botanical names are no longer relevant simply because they applied to cultivars that have disappeared for ever or have remained out of sight ... until rediscovered. The Chilean rainbow chard recently rediscovered in the USA is a case in point. This cultivar has been available in Australia as long as I can remember but Australian taxonomists appear to have neither a high international profile in horticultural taxonomy nor much interest in exotic cultivated plants. So if it were not for the remarkable horticultural manuals of the past such as the Vilmorin catalogues, Le Chevalier Encyclopedia, to name only two in one language, the history of Beta vulgaris L. var. flavescens DC. cv. 'Rainbow Chard' would be hard for anyone to track down. It is therefore useful to have on hand the botanical names used then and be aware of their relationship to the current names. Beta will of course be the subject of one more listing.
On the other hand we also collect every name we come across in any of our 70 selected languages. This should help translators to select the most appropriate name for any specific translation. The average bi-lingual botany-related or agricuture-related dictionary is far too often lacking details. This is due in part to the pressure that lexicographers are under when doing this work, which is never remunerated as it should. It is also due to the limitations of print publishing and in today's world the cost of publication. It is not surprising therefore that most publications of this type are always deficient somewhere. No matter how expert the lexicographers and how competent the publishers the sad reality of economic rationalism affects every thing including high standards in just about field of endeavour.

We hope that our work will go a fair way towards rectifying this situation, thereby helping many experts and enthusiasts to get a global picture. By cooperating together we may even facilitate the much needed  "sorting" of plant names.


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Date created: 22 / 07 / 1997
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Last modified: 03 / 06 / 2012
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Maintained by: Michel H. Porcher