Tuesday, November 15, 2011


A beautifully gnarly, old apple tree on the property of an 1813 farmhouse I lived in last year.

I am excited to announce that I will be published for the first time in the journal, Taxon in February. This is the journal for the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT). It is often the go-to outlet for the dealings of plant nomenclature, which is where my article falls. And, as implied by the photo above, its all about apple (sorry, no mosses in this post).

My initial love of plants truly began with nomenclature (their Latin names). I still cannot explain why I am so intrigued by plant names, perhaps knowing them puts me on some exclusive level achieved by few...maybe...really I don't know. Botanical nomenclature is a pretty complex system that I am being fully immersed into via a class I am taking here at Cornell with Jim Reveal. The entire class time is dedicated to reading and understanding the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), a legal document ultimately governed by the UN that consists of 62 articles dealing with the perpetual mess that is botanical nomenclature. I know, 99% of the population would find a class like this mind numbing. Why on Earth would I enjoy reading legal jargon a few hours a week? I haven't a clue. I should be completely bored by it, but it holds my interest somehow, which is good for me because it reaffirms my aspirations to to be a botanical garden curator/plant recorder (a job that requires a good handle on plant names). Aside from combing through this document in class, Jim gives us real-world nomenclatural issues to try to resolve as he stumbles upon them. It just so happened we'll be published because of one!

It was a joint effort with my 3 fellow classmates and Jim. We had 3 days to write this thing up so it could be rushed through to make it in the February issue. I will attempt to keep the details as succinct as possible and still keep your attention.

We drafted a proposal to "superconserve" the family name of apple, Malaceae (based on the apple genus, Malus). We are dealing with a large group (subfamily) that includes Malus and Prunus (plum, cherry, peach, almond, etc.). Since both of these genera are in the same subfamily naming get tricky, who gets priority? Malaceae is already conserved, but that is not quite enough to allow the subfamily to be called Maloideae. Based on the rules in the ICBN, the subfamily should be Amygdaloideae because Amygdalaceae (family name of Prunus) was conserved first. Amygdaloideae is hardly ever used (let alone spelled or pronounced correctly) compared to Maloideae, even though technically it was incorrect to do so. Plus, wouldn't it be nice to have such an important plant like apple lend its name to the infrageneric ranks (ranks between genus and family)? So in order for the subfamily to be correct in being called Maloideae, Malaceae needed to be conserved against the earlier conserved Amygdalaceae (superconservation!). Keep in mind, all this name swapping does not change the name of the family that Malus is currently under, the rose family (Rosaceae).

That was the digested version of this convoluted problem, there is more to it, but I am sure I've already lost you anyway. For more details, grab the February issue of Taxon when it comes out and look for proposal #2038, "Proposal to conserve Malaceae, nom. cons., against Amygdalaceae, nom. cons. (Magnoliophyta), a “superconservation” proposal". Our rational warrants the conservation in my opinion, but we will have to wait to see if it is actually accepted by a committee!

It was a great experience to make waves in the realm of botanical nomenclature, and gratifying to know I helped the apple name retain its legacy through the taxonomic ranks :)

UPDATE: The apple paper has been published in the December 2011 issue of Taxon! Further exciting news, I also contributed to the publication of 3 additional proposals! One dealing with the lectotypification of walnut species, one regarding the rejection of a willow name and a third related to the alteration of various willow author citations. Will update as those are published!

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