Creating order from diversity

Creating order from diversity


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Creating Order from Diversity  

Humans, in their tireless pursuit of order and understanding, use different systems to organize and classify the diversity they see around them. There are infinite ways to classify plants, and we do this frequently as we describe our garden plants. Annual or perennial? Root crop or fruit? Woody or herbaceous? Even desirable or undesirable (weed)? Of course these kinds of classifications are arbitrary and often unclear.

Botanists have long attempted to design a universal system of classification. As early as medieval times, scientists were giving plants Latin names—Latin being the language of scholarship. But the current system of nomenclature can be attributed to one man, Swedish botanist and naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). Before Linnaeus, a plant’s name might have consisted of a genus, followed by a string of Latin descriptors five or six words long. Linnaeus devised a standardized shorthand system, in which all plants were given a two-word, or binomial, name consisting of a genus name and species name. Thank goodness! It’s hard enough to remember two Latin names!

Plant classification is a way of expressing what we understand to be the relationships among types of plants. Our current classification system is based on the hypothesis that all plants evolved from a single, less complex organism, and are therefore all related in some way. Imagining a big family tree can help you visualize the concept—some plants are closely related, some more distantly related.

Taxonomists, as specialists in classification are called, use various criteria for determining plant relationships. Classification is often based primarily on plant reproductive structures, including features such as flower morphology, and pollen and seed shapes. Other characteristics may also influence classification, from leaf vein patterns to more obscure details such as the structure of epidermal hairs. (We’ll talk more about plant relationships next week.)

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