Plant Taxonomy
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Internal links
Definition
Predictive value
Forming groups
Group names
Ranks
Taxon
International Code

Aquicaers.jpg (17607 bytes)Aquilegia coerulea
What is plant taxonomy?
Taxonomy is about grouping things; plant taxonomy is about grouping plants. 

There are many ways to group plants.  Many popular flower books group species by color; gardeners may group them by a combination of habit and color; herbalists might group them by their effects on humans.  These are all valid special purpose groupings, but plant taxonomy is about grouping plants in such a way that the groups have predictive valueThis means that, if you know a plant belongs to group A rather than group B, it will also share other characteristics of group A, even those that were not used to decide which plants go into group A.   It is this predictive ability that makes the groups of scientific plant taxonomy particularly valuable. 

Predictions based on a taxonomic group are not always correct, but they are more likely to be correct than incorrect if the taxonomic group is appropriately circumscribed.    Consider some examples:

Example 1: You are told that a plant is a tree.  Can you predict whether it has flowers or cones?  Suppose you are told, in addition, that it has blue flowers.   Can you tell whether the flowers are radially symmetric (circular in outline when viewed face-on) or bilaterally symmetric (two-sided in outline when viewed faced-on)?

Example 2:  You are told that a plant is a member of the Brassicaceae (a family of plants that includes mustards and cabbages).  By the end of this course, you will be able to state with considerable confidence that it probably has simple or pinnately dissected alternate leaves and flowers with four separate petals, 6 stamens (2 of which are shorter than the others), a superior ovary with (very probably) 2 chambers, and ovules that are attached to the walls of the ovary.  If you really dig into the information that has been accumulated about the family, you will find that you can also predict that the plant manufactures glucosinolates but not iridoids.  What is particularly pertinent to this discussion is that taxonomists had agreed on the circumscription of the Brassicaceae before anyone knew anything about glucosinolates and iridoids.

How does one decide what makes a good taxonomic group?
I wish the answer to this question were simple.  It is not.  I shall come back to this point, but first let me explain how most taxonomic groups came to be recognized.  Initially, plants were grouped on the basis of their morphological similarities.  In other words, plants that looked alike were put in the same group.   As notions of relationships among plants developed, it came to be recognized that such similarity probably reflected descent from the same ancestors.  The vast majority of plant groups are still circumscribed by their morphology, but some circumscriptions have been changed  on the basis of information from other kinds of characteristics.   For further discussion about using characteristics in taxonomy, see characters and character states.

Obviously, in comparing the characteristics of different plants one needs to be comparing homologous structures (structures that are the product of the same genes). One cannot, for instance, compare the shape of a leaf in one plant with the shape of a petal in another plant.  This seems fairly obvious, but the leaves of some plants look very like petals.  

In recent years, taxonomists have started considering several non-morphological characteristics in forming plant groups.  Among such characteristics are ecology, chromosome numbers, isozymes (proteins produced by particular genes), and nucleic acids sequences.  They have also started using explicit means of numerical data analysis to evaluate the  relationships among different organisms.  We shall discuss these other characteristics and the two primary methods of numerical data analysis briefly in this course, but our primary focus is going to be on learning to use groups that have already been circumscribed, not on reevaluating such groups.  

Names of the groups used by taxonomists
Life is too short to keep talking about "taxonomic groups".  As you already know, taxonomists recognize several different levels of grouping.  The levels that we shall talk about most in this class are, from smallest to largest, species, genus, family, class, and division.  There are, however, some additional ranks of which you should be aware.  The complete list, from highest to lowest is:

Kingdom, Division (may be called phylum), Class, Order, Family, Tribe, Genus, Species, Variety, Form

Every plant belongs to a species, every species to a genus, every genus to a family, every family to an order, every order to a class, and every class to a division, but species do not have to have varieties or forms. 

If additional ranks are needed, one can use the prefixes 'super-' or 'sub-' to inject ranks above or below, respectively each of the main ranks.  For instance, superfamilies contain two or more families but a subfamily would refer to a part of a family.  In this course we shall sometimes refer to subfamilies and subspecies, but we are not likely to use any other prefixed ranks.   

There are times when we want to talk about taxonomic groups without being explicit about the rank involved.  The word taxon (plural taxa) was invented for this purpose.  It may be that we simply wish to avoid a discussion as to whether the group should be treated as a species or a subspecies or it may be that what is being said is equally true about species, genera, families, and divisions. 

Naming groups
There is little point forming taxa unless we can communicate about them.  The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature is a set of rules that governs how botanical taxa are named.  The goal of the Code is to ensure that, at any rank, there is only one correct name for a plant if (and this is a big if), taxonomists agree how it should be classified (= grouped). For more information about the Code and naming plants, you can either view the Code itself or look at another Web page designed for this course.