As we delve into how to identify succulents and learn about specific ones, I think it is important to get a basic understanding of the plant taxonomy chart and how succulents fit it. Hang on, it may be a bumpy ride!
What is a Plant Taxonomy Chart?
Glad you asked!
Way back in the 18th century, this smart guy named Carolus Linnaeus (Swedish) decided we needed a system to arrange and classify all living things. This became our system of taxonomy. Imagine taking every living thing from algae to humans to trees to dolphins to birds and then organizing them based on “likeness”. That boggles my mind! So he developed a classification chart, sorta a giant family tree.
When he first developed the system, nothing was really known about DNA and what happened inside each plant. His system was built more on which plants looked alike, which was fine then but now we know plants can have more in common than meets the eye. The current system of classification is called “phylogenetic classification” which organizes each plant by their common ancestor. This system allows plants that have evolved and look different from their cousins to still be classified together (insert your own family joke here).
He also developed the two-part naming system we still use. The first word is capitalized and is the genus, the second word is lower case and is the species. Both words are usually in Latin and they should always be in italics. You have probably seen Homo sapiens listed before.
Because this family tree is so big, we are just going to concentrate on the parts we need for succulents. Here (to the right) is an overview, keep in mind this is a rough overview, the chart is sometimes changed to reflect new research and discoveries plus categories in the plant section are not necessarily the ones used for other kingdoms.
How Do They Decide What Goes Where?
Oh boy, that is an interesting question. As I mentioned above, it used to be based on which plants looked similar. Now, they look for a common ancestor. That sounds great in theory but to check the over 250,000 plants in the plant kingdom takes time, resources, plus some are hard to get to. Some plants need to be reevaluated and some are easier done than others. Also, when you take in to account how climate change is affecting plants (they are physically evolving to adapt to different weather patterns, pollution, etc.) that is a lot to document.
At first, for the plant taxonomy example (below), I was going to use Sansevieria trifasciata (mother in law’s tongue/snake plant) as an example because of this recent post. As I started researching and checking my facts, I had trouble finding enough people agreeing on the family so I changed succulents. Here is what one website said (bear with me through this part):
“While many botanists have adopted the APG III system of classification for the orders and families of flowering plants, which places Sansevieria in the family Asparagaceae, the CAB Thesaurus continues to use the Cronquist system which places it under Agavaceae. The taxonomic tree in the Identity section reflects this positioning. The Notes below describe how Sansevieria is placed within the APG system. USDA-ARS (2012) places Sansevieria within the subfamily Nolinoideae in the Asparagaceae, but notes that the genus is sometimes also placed in the Agavaceae, Convallariaceae, Dracaenaceae, Liliaceae or Ruscaceae.” – CABI.org
There are two different systems listed in that one paragraph (in bold) and it also mentions that Sansevieria (the genus) is sometimes listed under six possible families!
According to Wikipedia the APG III system “of flowering plant classification is the third version of a modern, mostly molecular-based, system of plant taxonomy being developed by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG). Published in 2009, it was superseded in 2016 by a further revision, the APG IV system.”
Also according to Wikipedia, the Cronquist System is “a taxonomic classification system of flowering plants. It was developed by Arthur Cronquist in a series of monographs and texts, including The Evolution and Classification of Flowering Plants (1968; 2nd edition, 1988) and An Integrated System of Classification of Flowering Plants (1981).”
Why Don’t We Just Use Nicknames Instead?
Oh my, based on the previous section, nicknames do seem like they would be easier! Unfortunately, a lot of different plants have the same nicknames, the nicknames are regional, or they have more than one nickname.
For example, if you ask for a jade plant you could get either of these. The one on the left is also called the lucky plant, money plant or money tree. The one on the right has a lot of nicknames too including finger jade, Shrek plant, Gollum fingers, E.T. fingers, and hobbit plant.
Crassula ovata is on the left and Crassula portulacea on the right.
We’ve already talked about how many nicknames Sansevieria trifasciata has.
Or, Google Aloe images and see how many species pop up.
Then there is donkey’s tail or maybe you call it burro’s tail, it seems like it would be the same plant, right? It has the same name just one is in English and the other in Spanish.
Nope, two different plants. Sedum morganium is on the left and Sedum burrito on the right.
Now, as said in a previous post, if you like the plant, who cares what it is called. If, though, you are looking for a specific plant or a specific genus, it is best to know the scientific name.
Can You Sum This Up For Me?
Sure, I think…
Just kidding, I can. 🙂
Plant taxonomy and taxonomy, in general, is complicated but necessary. New developments, techniques, research, and classification systems mean there is some confusion. Scientists disagreeing among themselves add to the confusion. Taxonomy is an evolving process, one that will never be completely finished.
The genus and species names will stay the same but the family and other things may change. Knowing the scientific name means you will get the specific plant you want.
Love your succulents!
As always, I love hearing from you! If you have questions, comments, or want to share a story, please do so below.