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Why Do We Need to Use Scientific Terminology?

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In early Spring the number of wildflowers in bloom in the northeastern states and adjacent Canada is relatively low.  At that time of year, most of the species are comparatively distinctive and identifiable without much difficulty.  Descriptive adjectives (in English) pertaining to flower color and size, leaf shape and plant height are sufficient to describe many early-flowering plants.  By mid-Spring, matters get a bit more complicated, when violets pose a few challenges.

However by June, hundreds of additional species begin sending forth new shoots, and plant identification becomes more challenging.  The problem becomes especially acute for large plant families that contain many similar-looking species, differentiated by minute, obscure morphological characters.

Countless scientific terms have been created to describe the diverse structures of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of plant species (worldwide).  It's not possible to describe all the plants we find with familiar, everyday (vernacular) words, such as leaves, stems, branches, petals, hairs, etc.

Consider, for example the chart below that shows photos of 24 different species in the composite family (Asteraceae).  These species form an identifiable "group", and have similar characteristics that are derived from shared ancestry.  They all have milky sap and leaves that are either basal or alternate.  Most of them also have florets with yellow, 5-toothed, ray-like corollas (i.e., "ligules").  However, it is difficult to distinguish the yellow-flowered species based on just the few, above-mentioned characteristics.  In order to distinguish them, one may also need to know whether the leaves have lobes or not; whether the edges of the leaves are spiny or not; how many florets per flower head they typically have; whether the involucral bracts are appressed or spreading, hairy or hairless; whether the fruits are flattened or round in cross-section, and so forth.  (Refer to the list below for an index to the images in this chart.)  Key to genera in this group of species.

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For species descriptions on this website I have attempted to achieve a balance, replacing as many technical terms with English words as is reasonable, and to make the sentence style more like that of an English sentence.  But, there are many scientific terms that don't have easy one- or two-word English equivalents; for example, involucre, receptacle, oblanceolate, pappus, leaf axils, subtend....  The latter is actually an English word, used in a specialized manner to describe certain plant structures.  Let's take a concrete example.

Receptacle:  "In the Asteraceae, the expanded portion of a peduncle bearing the florets, involucral bracts and chaff."

It would not be feasible to replace the term "receptacle" with the 16 words used in the above example, whenever it became necessary to describe characteristics of receptacles.

Most technical terms used at this website are defined in a Glossary, accessed from the General Resources Page.  Technical terms found on species description pages are also hyperlinked to their definitions in the Glossary.

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1. ... Lapsana communis Nipplewort
2. Tragopogon dubius Goatsbeard
3. Nabalus altissimus Tall Rattlesnake root
4. Cichorium intybus Chicory
5. Picris hieracioides Oxtongue
6. Hypochaeris radicata Cat's ear
7. Sonchus arvensis Field sow thistle
8. Lactuca biennis Tall blue lettuce
9. Pilosella piloselloides King devil
10. Scorzoneroides autumnalis Fall dandelion
11. Lactuca serriola Prickly lettuce
12. Hieracium venosum Rattlesnake weed
13. Pilosella flagellaris Large mouse ear hawkweed
14. Nabalus albus White lettuce
15. Lactuca canadensis Wild lettuce
16. Sonchus oleraceus Common sow thistle
17. Hieracium murorum Wall hawkweed
18. Hieracium kalmii Kalm's hawkweed
19. Krigia virginica Dwarf dandelion
20. Mycelis muralis Wall lettuce
21. Pilosella aurantiaca Orange hawkweed
22. Crepis tectorum Narrow-leaved hawksbeard
23. Hieracium paniculatum Panicled hawkweed
24. Taraxacum officinale Common dandelion

 

Copyright Arieh Tal, http://botphoto.com, 2016