For Non-Botanists

Plants produce food for all other living organisms on earth. It is well put in the bible – “all flesh is grass”.

There are two kinds of plants.

Flowering plants and Non flowering plants.

Flowering plants, in the language of science, are known as ANGIOSPERMS. This group is dominant on earth today – more than 2,50,000 species.

Sorting them, classifying them into categories, is both a practical necessity and a need of our minds to comprehend them.

Classification of Angiosperms is based on the structure of the flower. A flower, typically, has 4 parts –

The calyx, collective name for the sepals, which is what is visible when the flower is in bud stage.

The corolla, collective name for the petals, which is what constitutes the eye catching part of the flower.

The androecium, collective name for the male parts of the flower, normally the pollen grains contained in sacs called the anthers. Anthers sit atop columns arising from the petal or the central part and these called stamens or filaments.

The gynaecium, collective name for the female parts of the flower, normally the ovary, connected with the stigma by a hollow column called the style.

Species is the basic unit. Grouping them into the next level we get the genus. Grouping these genuses or genera into the next level we get the family. So, we really should understand that we have the abstraction of signatures of species, not individual plants.

Thus the complete scientific name of a species should consist of three name words –

Family name word, Generic name word, Specific name word, also called specific epithet.

One specific name can occur in the name of several species e.g. Alnus nepalensis, Mahonia nepalensis. No species can belong to more than one genus. And no species can belong to more than one family. And, lastly, no generic name can occur in more than one family. The result of this set of rules or conventions is that the genus name and a specific name together forms a unique combination which thus becomes the name of a species. It is not logically necessary always to speak of three name words viz FAMILY-GENUS-SPECIES. Simply GENUS-SPECIES is sufficient.

Signature of a species means that combination of characteristics of its organs which is unique to it. These characteristics include those of the leaf, the stem, and all. For example if we see a tree, with pinnate leaves arranged on the stem in whorls, this combination of characteristics takes us very close to a species called Kigelia pinnata, and if this combination does not occur in any other species, it becomes the signature of Kigelia pinnata.

So called common names are notorious for lack of fixity. Take the name “ulloo”. It is the name of the owl in hindi, also it is the name of a plant, a tree, whose botanical name is Holoptelia integrifolia, also known in hindi as “papdi”. Or take the word “chapha”, in Marathi. It has been applied to at least four very different plants. One more problem, common names also vary from region to region, sometimes village to village.

So why not be botany literate, by learning the botanical or scientific name, in addition to the local common name ?